PART ONE — October 1781
IT BEGAN AS A glimmer.
John stopped digging and glanced around, seeking the source of the flickering light. The crescent moon had long since slipped beneath the horizon, leaving only dim starlight in its wake. None of John’s companions held a lantern or candle. Their hands were otherwise filled. Some men wielded picks and shovels. Like John, they were working furiously to complete the new trench. Others were wheeling enormous field guns into their emplacements or stacking the powder bags and cannonballs John and the other wagoners had brought from camp.
All were soldiers, their dark uniform coats removed and piled along the side of the trench, their light-colored waistcoats and breeches caked in mud. John leaned his shovel against the earthen wall and stood up straight, casting his dark eyes westward to where another group of men were hastily assembling an artillery battery of their own. The mysterious glow cast undulating shadows in their direction but not enough light to make the other men visible from John’s vantage point. If he had seen them, however, John knew they’d resemble his companions except in one respect: the coats piled along the sides of their trench were the white uniform coats of the French army, not the blue coats of John’s fellow American soldiers.
“Chavis! John Chavis, isn’t it?” The sergeant in charge of the work detail shot John a stern expression. “No time to loiter, man. Back to it.”
“Yes, sir.” John was not, strictly speaking, under the sergeant’s command. John was a teamster in a Virginia regiment. After delivering food and ammunition to the front lines, however, he’d volunteered to help the sergeant’s men finish a new trench connecting the American position to the York River. When complete, it would bring their artillery much closer to their target: the British army camped in Yorktown.
Though eighteen-year-old John Chavis had spent most of his military service driving wagons, he could readily see how important the new trench might be. At such close range, General George Washington’s Continental Army and French allies might well pound the British to bits and force their commander, General Cornwallis, to surrender. John was also in awe of the men who’d stormed two British redoubts the previous night and thus seized the ground over which the new trench was being dug. The sergeant, Joseph Plumb Martin, was one of those heroes. So John felt obliged to follow him.
A favorite verse of his mother’s sprang to mind, from the Book of Judges: And he said unto them, Follow after me: for the Lord hath delivered your enemies into your hand.
Listening to his mother recite the Bible, and to ministers preaching in church, had certainly helped inspire in the young John Chavis a love of the written and spoken word. They weren’t his only inspirations, however. Many of his ancestors — black, white, and Indian — were literate men and women who’d championed education among the free persons of color living along the Virginia-North Carolina border. As a boy, John had also spent years indentured to the lawyer James Milner, whose library was one of the largest in the colonies. With Milner’s blessing, John had spent many hours in that library, petting the family’s old hound dog Janus and working his way through countless volumes: histories, law books, religious tracts, books on science and mathematics, literary criticism, even ancient myths and legends.
At his death, Milner bequeathed the library to Reverend William Willie, who took it upon himself to continue the boy’s unconventional education. Its end came not by reaching the limits of John’s intellectual capacity, which were vast, or by reaching his goal of joining the Presbyterian ministry. It was war that ended John’s education.
Not ended, he assured himself. Just interrupted. There is still so much left to learn. A long, great river lies ahead. And I will set it on fire!
But not tonight. John picked up his shovel and drove it into the muddy ground. As he did so, he noticed the faint shadow cast by end of the shovel abruptly shorten, as if the light casting it had suddenly moved directly over his head. At the same time, John heard a most unexpected sound: the long, plaintive whine of someone drawing a bow across the high string of a fiddle. He looked up. What he saw properly belonged not on a battlefield but in one of the storybooks he’d read.
In the sky was a globe of pulsing light. It wasn’t resting atop an impossibly large torch or dangling from the wick of an impossibly large candle. It simply floated in the air like a soap bubble.
Then it moved. The sphere dropped passed over John’s astonished face, then hovered over Joseph Plumb Martin’s head. The sergeant glanced up, started in surprise, then shrugged and starting walking toward the river.
“Sergeant Martin, what is it?” John called after him. “A signal light of some kind?”
“What you squawkin’ ‘bout, boy?” demanded one of the other soldiers, a tall man wearing a crooked smile.
The long whine of the mysterious fiddle resolved into a slow, sweet tune. It reminded John of boyhood afternoons spent walking Janus along the creek at Milner’s farm, singing hymns and telling fabulous stories to the old hound dog. The two companions had often wandered so far, and so long into the evening, that John would have been hopelessly lost if Janus had not guided him unerringly back home through the dark forest.
The memory filled him with a powerful longing. Old Janus hadn’t much outlived Milner, and John never owned a pet of his own. It occurred to him that he’d seen dogs in camp, some strays begging for scraps, others belonging to American officers. General Washington himself was often accompanied by one of his beloved hounds. It further occurred to John that perhaps if he returned to camp, the commander-in-chief might lend him a dog to walk along the York River until—
John shook his head. “There’s something queer going on,” he told the tall man, who was leaning against his pick. “Something about that fiddle. Something unearthly about that light.”
“Somethin’ unearthly?” The soldier repeated John’s words with mock surprise. “About the moon? What a smart boy you are.”
The moon set hours ago. “That couldn’t be the—”
“If a little moonlight scares you,” the man interjected, “best go on after your master, then.”
John bristled at that. “I am a free man, sir, not a slave. A Continental soldier, same as you.”
“Same as me, eh?” The soldier straightened and hefted his pick. “The likes of you will never—”
Rapid arpeggios from the unseen fiddler caused the tall man to halt in mid-sentence. He swayed back and forth to the frenetic rhythm, then turned and walked in the same direction Sergeant Martin had walked — toward the glowing globe in the sky and the river beyond.
What is happening here?
John decided to follow the two men and ask them, but he never got the chance. First he was bowled aside by other soldiers who’d dropped their tools or abandoned their guns to scurry along the trench. Then from behind him, clearly audible over the insistent song from the fiddle and confused mumbling from the fleeing men, came other sounds that lodged a stronger claim on John’s attention.
Shouts and shots. Grunts and groans. Clanks of metal on metal.
Sounds of battle.
A British attack? John whirled and sprinted back toward the intersection of the French and American lines. The sounds grew louder. Bright jabs of gunfire punctured the dark cloak of night. Straining his ears and eyes to learn more of what was happening far ahead, John failed to detect the short, bulky shape in his way until he crashed into it and tumbled head over heels.
Then the shape spat.
What came next was a long string of words, discordant and shrill, in a language John Chavis didn’t recognize. That was saying something, since in his youth he’d not only studied English, Latin, and Greek but picked up a smattering of French and Spanish, as well.
“Pardon me,” John said, scrambling to his feet. “I didn’t see you.”
That provoked another round of strange words. John heard footsteps tromping about in the trench. He followed the noises but still saw no one. “Please, sir, let me help you.”
There were more heavy footsteps, followed by a loud crunch. With a wince, John realized his own boot was responsible. Reaching down to find what he’d stepped on, his right hand closed around a long, straight piece of light wood and his left hand on a short, curved piece of heavy metal. John held them in front of his eyes, trying to make out their faint outlines in the dim starlight.
The next explosion of words was, again, unintelligible — but the frustration and anger conveyed were unmistakable. “My deepest apologies,” John sputtered. “It’s so dark. If only that unearthly light were still overhead!”
The only response John heard was the sound of running feet. The unseen man he’d collided with in the trench, the man whose possessions he’d accidentally trod upon, now appeared to be sprinting across the open ground toward Yorktown.
Was it an enemy scout? John was tempted to follow and find out. Then he thought better of running alone across a dark field toward the British lines. John next considered his original plan of joining whatever battle was unfolding to the west, though he’d dropped his shovel somewhere and was now armed only with the shards of wood and metal he’d picked up.
The decision was made for him a moment later when a squad of Continentals, muskets in hand, came barreling along the trench. Unable to get out of their way, John was shoved into a trot alongside the soldiers. They soon reached the junction of the French and American lines. There they found a dozen other Continentals, some dazed or lightly wounded. Other men were hard at work on the American guns. One soldier held a torch aloft. By its light, John could see that the British raiders had driven bayonets into the cannons’ vent holes and broken them off, rendering the guns at least temporarily inoperable.
“Where’d they go?” barked a voice from behind John. He turned to see Joseph Plumb Martin, beet-faced and panting, helping a Continental to his feet.
“Back to Yorktown,” grunted the soldier, whose forehead had been slashed by a bayonet. “Redcoats attacked by the hundreds. Some here, some over on the French side. Came to spike the guns, but we’ll get ’em firing again.”
“We will, indeed,” Martin said. He clinched his jaw in grim determination, though John could also see confusion and frustration in his eyes.
The sergeant’s sorry he missed the fight. So am I.
Then John remembered why missing it might well have saved his life: he was unarmed. He glanced at the objects still clutched in his hands. With the benefit of torchlight, he could now see what they were.
The straight piece of wood in his right hand was splintered at one end and pierced with four small pegs on the other. The curved piece of metal in his left was made of brass and attached to the top half of a metal box to which shards of glass still clung.
John Chavis instantly recognized both objects: the neck of a broken fiddle and the handle of a broken lantern.
PART TWO — December 1802
THE MINISTER THOUGHT HE spotted something moving among the trees, but he couldn’t be sure. Perhaps the decision to press on after preaching his sermon was a mistake. He’d have spent a cold, lonely Christmas in Lexington, a guest in some Presbyterian’s modest house rather than back home in Lunenberg with his family. When he’d decided to walk a couple of miles west of town to visit his alma mater, however, he’d guaranteed his Christmas would be even colder and lonelier. It was a school holiday, after all. He should have known the grounds would be largely deserted. There’d be no crackling fire or warm fellowship awaiting him at Washington Academy. And if he encountered some wild beast on the way, there’d probably be no one to hear his cry for help.
Serve me right. The minister reached down to rub his sore knees. And with my rheumatism acting up again, I won’t be outrunning anything faster than a turtle.
The gaunt old nag he’d led along the trail from Lexington groaned loudly, as if to agree. “You’re one to talk,” said John Chavis with an accusatory snort of his own. “I lead you here instead of riding you, to spare your tired old legs, and this is the thanks I get?”
As if in reply, the horse suddenly jerked her head, yanked the reins from John’s hand, and began trotting back the way they’d come. Within seconds her trot became a surprisingly rapid gallop. The horse disappeared into the woods.
Well, I guess she showed me. John shook his head in frustration. It might take all night to recover the nag.
Then, from the opposite direction, came the crunch of leaves underfoot. There was something out here in the forest with him. Perhaps it was just a racoon or a fox. John whispered a prayer.
What came next wasn’t the crunch of more leaves. It was no sound at all. It was a sight John hadn’t seen in more than twenty years. Hovering just above the trees ahead of him was a sphere of white light. Flickering. Beckoning. Bathing the foliage beneath with an eerie glow.
John’s mind leapt back to that night at Yorktown, the night he’d seen that strange apparition, heard that strange music, and accidentally broken the lantern and fiddle of that unknown scout from Cornwallis’s army. After the skirmish at the artillery emplacement, he’d asked Sergeant Martin and other American soldiers about the incident. None could recall seeing the light or hearing the fiddle play.
At the time, he’d chalked the whole experience up to the nerves of battle and an imagination made overactive by his youthful reading habits. It wasn’t until four years ago, while pursuing his studies at Washington Academy, that a different explanation presented itself. John had been on a camping trip with his friend Samuel Houston, co-founder of the academy, and Houston’s young son Sam. While the two men were packing up, the boy had slipped away and followed Cedar Creek to the old Rock Bridge. It was there they’d found young Sam in the company of a young Tennessean named David Crockett. And it was there that John and the two boys — but not Colonel Houston — had seen four famous men and three small fairies magically disappear into the side of Natural Bridge.
John had always known the world was full of truths obscured from the eyes of men. Had not Jesus said so himself? He’d once explained to his disciples why he so often spoke in parables: “Because it is given unto you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it is not given.” What changed that day four years ago at Natural Bridge was John’s sense of his own identity. Witnessing the mysterious disappearance of Thomas Jefferson, Daniel Boone, Isaac Shelby, John Sevier, and the three fairies had led John to believe he might possess a special insight of his own, one also possessed by the two boys, David and Sam, but not by Sam’s father or the soldiers John had served with during the War.
They hadn’t seen the ball of light over the trenches of Yorktown. John had. Now here it was again, two decades later and two hundred miles away.
The light moved. John followed. The sphere rose and fell, as if trying to float as close as possible to the trees without touching them. It also moved at a slow pace, as if trying not to outpace a middle-aged Presbyterian minister with rheumatic knees.
Presently John emerged from the woods and found himself in familiar surroundings: the grounds of what was called Liberty Hall Academy when he transferred here from the College of New Jersey and was later renamed Washington Academy after the former president whose donation saved it from financial ruin. Just ahead was the residence of the academy’s rector. A rock-strewn pathway led to and around the two-story house. Just above its roof hovered the ball of light.
The voice was high-pitched and melodious, as if the words were being sung rather than spoken, though to John they sounded more like a taunt than a song.
“Don’t think so, on account of it being Christmastime,” John replied, trying to sound calm though his body was quivering and his heart racing. “The rector’s in town, like as not.”
From behind him came a snicker. “You best go inside and find out.”
John was no stranger to being talked to like a servant, or even taunted, by someone he just met. “Go see for yourself,” he said, spying a tree stump nearby. “Think I’ll sit a spell and rest my weary legs.”
There was a sharp intake of breath, followed by words muttered so low John couldn’t make them out. Thinking it best to act nonchalant, the minister walked stiffly to the stump and sat. His sigh of relief sounded genuine because it was.
What emerged from the forest caused his mind to leap back to that rainy morning at Natural Bridge. The fairies he’d seen then varied in height from less than three feet to well over four. The figure who sprang into view was on the lower side of that range, stout and thick-limbed, and dressed in clothes John recognized only because he’d seen their like in illustrated books. The little man’s pointed cap and thick cloak were a moss green. Underneath the cloak, he wore a fern-green tunic cinched at the waist with a belt from which hung a shortsword in a scabbard. Covering his legs and feet were yellow-green hose and boots. The belt, scabbard, and boots were made of leather studded with green gemstones.
“One of your kind, eh?” said the newcomer, stroking the stiff beard of orange hair that jutted from his pale chin and cheeks. He eyed John with undisguised annoyance. “Must I always suffer such rotten luck?”
Irritated at the insult but determined not to provoke him, John merely rested on the stump and stared back. This produced two more details about the little man. The first was the presence of a thin strap extending diagonally across his chest. It was attached to a bulky object on his back, though it was too obscured by the cloak to tell what it was.
The second detail John noticed was that the tops of the little man’s ears weren’t round. They were pointed.
“I know you can hear me, though I am considered one of the greatest spellsingers of Pixiedom,” the fairy said. “There is no use in pretending otherwise, human.”
Comprehension dawned in John’s mind. The fairy hadn’t been annoyed by encountering a black man unwilling to do his bidding. What bothers him is that I can see and hear him.
“Wasn’t pretending, sir,” John replied. “Just couldn’t think of anything worth saying to you.”
The fairy sniffed. “Well, that sets you apart from all the other Sighted humans I have met. Talk and more talk. Questions and more questions. As if I have nothing better to occupy my time in the Blur than to satisfy the curiosity of gaping humans.”
“The . . . Blur?”
“See? Already the questions begin.” The little man frowned and ran a pudgy finger along the side of his stubby nose.
John cleared his parched throat and tried to sound disarming. “My name is John Chavis. I’m a minister of the Gospel. Our Bible instructs us to avoid ‘foolish and unlearned questions’ that ‘engender strife.’ There’s no call for strife between you and me, sir.”
“Oh, is that what you believe?” The little man chuckled and stroked his beard again. “Well, I suppose there is no harm in a little conversation. I am Leski, ranger of the Pixies. Ever heard of our Folk?”
“Only in storybooks,” John replied. “Until today, I have never spoken to a . . . a person like yourself.”
“That so?” Leski looked dubious. “Well, even if you had met other Folk, you should know that Pixies are a breed apart. While others slink and cower, we stride and command. While others scrounge for scraps and castoffs, we insist on only the finest humanwares. While others fill their monster pens with scrawny specimens, we hunt only the wildest and most powerful of beasts.”
Though most of what Leski said made no sense to John, he knew a braggart when he heard one. He’d had plenty of experience with them, both in his school days and during his time serving the Presbytery as a roving minister. Pride goeth before destruction, he recalled, and a haughty spirit before a fall. Keeping Leski talking seemed to be the best way to learn more about these Pixies and the magical world they represented.
“Monsters, you say?” John didn’t need to pretend to be astonished by Leski’s use of the word. “What sort of animals do you hunt? Panthers? Bears?”
The Pixie waved a dismissive hand. “Only journeymen and apprentices go on larder hunts. I hunt far more dangerous prey. Even you humans with your accursed Sight have no idea what creatures hide in your highest mountains, or swim in your deepest waters, or lurk in the shadows of your darkest forests. If I spoke of them, you would never believe the tales.”
He speaks of my ‘accursed’ Sight, my ability to see magical beings like him. Does he consider it a curse for his kind or mine?
John flashed a conciliatory smile. “Men of faith believe much that we cannot see. Scripture speaks of many strange beasts that once lived upon the earth, of fiery dragons and great sea monsters. I believe, though I have never seen them.”
“It is thanks to us you have not.” Leski paused for a moment, his eyes tightly shut, then shuddered as if blasted by a frigid wind. “And yet are humans grateful for our protection? Do they heed our guidance and follow the old ways? No! Every time I enter the Blur I find it less to my liking.”
Though he was worried about antagonizing the fairy too much, there was still so much John didn’t understand about what he was hearing. “What is this—”
“—Blur I keep speaking of?” Leski finished the question with a snort. “It is what we call the human realm, this land of shadow and madness. The Blur was once a glorious place, in the olden times when countless monsters stalked the world and dauntless heroes stalked them in turn. Humans truly heard our spellsongs then, and heeded them, and their bravest fought by our side as servants of order against champions of chaos.”
Do all fairy folk speak in poetic verse? “I read such stories as a child,” John said. “Myths and legends of Greece and Rome. Our own Bible records the heroic deeds of mighty Samson, and young David challenging the giant Goliath.”
“Typical human,” Leski muttered. “Your knowledge of adventure comes entirely from books. Mine comes from experience. The words you humans scribble on your flattened pages and recite in your flattened tones have no life. They fall to the ground like blocks of ice. We Folk rangers sing our words, and they blaze across the sky like a thousand dancing flames.”
John struggled to think of an apt response. The fairy’s next action eliminated the need to do so. Leski glanced up to the night sky, then scampered back into the woods. John tried to follow, grunting as he rose from the stump. He’d taken only a couple of steps, though, when the Pixie returned. From a shiny metal handle in his right hand dangled another bulky object. It was a cube of four transparent sides attached to a broad round top. The flame within cast flickering shadows on the dirt-and-stone pathway, the brick wall of the rector’s house, and the little man’s scowling face.
The fairy lifted it to eye level and drew one of his fingers over the circular top. The flame inside the lantern wavered, as if in a stiff breeze, then shrank to a small fraction of its original size and brilliance. John glanced up at the roof. The ball of light was gone. Although the workings of the lantern were a complete mystery to him, John Chavis had another exciting revelation. Perhaps the scout I encountered that night at Yorktown so many years ago was a Pixie, too.
“No need to waste its elemental magic on a Sighted human,” the fairy explained. Then he raised an eyebrow. “You are the only human here, I take it.”
John’s mind was reeling from what he’d seen and heard. He was far from understanding it all. Among his jumble of confusing thoughts, however, one was clear and compelling: Be cautious. “Don’t know if anyone else is here,” he said. “Could be the rector’s come back from town, or the stableboy never left.”
“Or a student perhaps?” Leski set the lantern down on the pathway and pointed at the rector’s house. “Might another human be inside, reading by candlelight?”
“Not in this house, no. The students live in Liberty Hall.”
“Then this is not where the books are stored.” Leski shrugged and walked along the pathway, clearly headed for the other buildings that lay beyond.
John felt a chill. “Why are you so interested in our books?” he asked, trudging after the fairy. “You say the words humans write are cold as ice.”
Leski turned his head. “Our books? Do you mean to say you are a student?”
“Was a student,” John corrected him. “I completed my studies. As I told you, I now preach for the Presbytery of Hanover.”
The fairy shook his head. “You may have no experience with Folk, but I know the ways of humans. You dark-skinned ones are servants and laborers, not scholars. Do not think to fool me. You studied no subjects here, except perhaps how to clean rooms or tend animals.”
The chill running up John’s spine disappeared, replaced by a burning sensation under the tight collar of his white shirt. It was by now a familiar feeling, an old wound pricked and prodded so often it never healed.
“I am a free man, a minister of the Gospel!” he found himself shouting. “I have read every book in the library and can recite its lessons from memory. Come with me to Liberty Hall and I’ll show you!”
“This place, you mean?” Leski was now pointing at the much larger building across the courtyard. Standing three stories high, Liberty Hall was constructed mostly of stone, including a belfry and four corner chimneys extending above a peaked roof of timber and pitch.
To John, the hall was both the site and the symbol of his greatest personal achievement. It was what he’d come back to Washington Academy to see. Now, though, the sight of it made him grimace. One minute he’d been telling himself to be cautious, and the next he’d been goaded into bragging about his intellect and telling the strange little man the location of the academy’s library.
Why does Leski want to know that?
“I would see those books, perhaps borrow some for a while,” the fairy said, as if replying to John’s unspoken question. “I will pay for the privilege, course.”
“That is not … I mean, I have no authority to lend you books.” John was taken aback by the Pixie’s unexpected offer. “Perhaps if we went to Lexington to find the rector—”
“I have neither the time nor the inclination. Just show me where the books are, and I will pay you handsomely.”
John shook his head. “No amount of coin would—”
Leski’s cackle was sharp and shrill. “I do not carry coin. What I offer is much more valuable. I trade in magic.”
John recalled two books he’d read many times in James Milner’s library, with old Janus curled up and snoring at his feet. One was Madame d’Aulnoy’s Fairy Tales. The other was Charles Perrault’s Tales of Past Times. Both contained stories of fairies who offered magical gifts or granted wishes.
The situation was utterly absurd, John realized. Here he was, a grown man, an educated minister, talking to a fantastical character who belonged in some storybook, not in Virginia on a cold December night. Yes, he’d once seen others like this Leski, at Natural Bridge. Wee Folk were real, he had to admit, but it just couldn’t be possible for them to conjure treasures out of thin air, turn a man into an animal or an animal into a man, or grant someone magical powers.
He is trying to trick me. Such a thing cannot be real.
“This cannot be real,” John said aloud.
The Pixie shook his head. “You think I have nothing to offer a Sighted human. You are wrong. It is true we rangers often trade the illusion of great riches to obtain humanwares for our tables and storehouses. You Sighted few may see through our magic, yes, but what of the rest of your herd? With spellsong I can turn other humans to your advantage.”
“Why would I want—”
“Open your mind!” Although he’d sounded exasperated during much of their conversation, Leski now pronounced each word with breathy enthusiasm, and punctuated each phrase with congenial smiles. “Consider what it means to have a spellsinger as an ally. If you are hungry and tired, I can make other humans feed and shelter you. If you are in peril, they will guard and rescue you. Whatever you wish will be my command — my command to them.”
It seemed to John he was no longer hearing the Pixie’s words but seeing them, the sounds and letters transformed into images that glistened and rippled like reflections in a stream. John saw himself carving an enormous turkey for Christmas dinner. He saw his wife sitting by a fireplace, a thick woolen blanket covering her from chin to toes. He saw a great stone house, taller and more spacious even than Liberty Hall, filled with books and teeming with children, his own and many others. They were reading, writing, and speaking in English and Latin and other tongues.
“What is your fondest wish, John Chavis?”
Another rippling image formed before his eyes, displacing the others. It was of John holding the Holy Bible in one hand and pointing at the sky with the other, his eyes shining with confidence and pride, his mouth forming eloquent words of wisdom and prophecy. His congregation was huge, impossibly so, people of all ages and colors and stations in life filling a church so large he couldn’t see its back wall. He could, however, see the line of notable men in the front pew. Some he knew from long association, others only from formal portraits. Among their number were fellow students from the College of New Jersey and Washington Academy as well as the elders who’d conducted his examinations and admitted him to the ministry. The governor of Virginia, James Monroe, regarded him with rapt attention. Seated next to him was John’s former teacher during his time in Princeton, John Witherspoon.
Who’s been dead for half a dozen years.
“This cannot be real!” John repeated, shutting his eyes and folding his arms.
“Not yet,” Leski admitted in a singsong voice, “but it could be.”
He nearly had me. “I thought your magic tricks didn’t work on the Sighted.”
The Pixie shrugged his shoulders. “Humans often see what they want to see, even when no Folk are present. Those with the Sight possess the ability to resist spellsong but not necessarily the will. Your wish must truly be your heart’s desire. Wealth? Power?”
“Respect.” The word leapt from John’s mouth as if escaping from prison.
“Ah.” Leski shot the minister a sly look. “You consider yourself a learned man, yet you are also a black man in a land where people who look like you are fieldhands, not scholars.”
John stared at the little man, both surprised and irritated by Leski’s insight.
“You seek respect from those who see you as inferior,” the Pixie continued. “Respect from those who claimed ‘all men are created equal’ yet founded regimes devoted to chaos, hatred, and deceit.”
“The United States are devoted to none of those things!” John exclaimed. “Our model of government is the best ever created. It places the people on firm ground below which they cannot sink.”
The Pixie rolled his eyes. “It is no different than any other. A select few rule over many. The rest is mere pretense.”
“I was a soldier. I fought for our Revolution.”
“And what victory did you win? People like you are no less oppressed today than they were when America’s rightful king ruled these lands from across the sea.”
There is truth in his words, John allowed, but not the whole truth. “The Revolution began with an idea, not a musket shot. It was an idea worth fighting for, though it be not yet adopted in full.”
Leski opened his mouth as if to respond, then closed it again.
“Yes, a dark cloud of ignorance and sin still covers our land,” John went on. “Still, through all the gloom, with God’s help, I can see the rays of ravishing light and glory.”
The Pixie dipped his head and shoulders into an exaggerated bow. “You are no mean spellsinger yourself, John Chavis. You deserve the respect you crave. I can give it to you.”
“And in exchange all you want are a few storybooks from the library?”
The fairy shook his head. “Great Maker, why would I want such trifles? No, it is human philosophy that interests me. Works of theology. Ethics. Studies of the natural world.”
It was not the reply John expected. “Philosophical works? What interest do they hold for you?”
“Call it . . . professional curiosity.” Leski held out his hands. “What does it matter? With my aid, you will become the greatest minister of the age. We will write your words on the hearts of vast multitudes.”
As much as John doubted the fairy’s intentions, he found it impossible to reject the proposal outright. Over the past two years, he’d preached at dozens of churches in Virginia and Carolina. That he brought his audiences the true word of God, and that it offered the path for salvation, John was convinced. How many people had failed to follow that path, however, because they’d refused to open their minds and hearts to him, a black man?
The more he thought about it, the more he regretted the missed opportunities. Didn’t he owe it to these congregations to use whatever means it took to guide them to the truth? Would a few books from Liberty Hall be too high a price to pay for saving so many souls?
Then John felt his regret give way to other emotions. Frustration. Irritation. Anger.
The night air was crisp and cold. But John felt as though he’d fallen into a bonfire. The inferno surrounded and blinded him. It scorched his clothes. It singed his flesh. It thrust lances of flame into his ears and throat. His fury was blazing, overwhelming, irresistible. Soon it would consume him.
“You dare challenge me! My song is more than a match for yours!”
Startled by Leski’s defiant outburst, John opened his eyes. The fairy was barely visible in the dark of night. He’d tossed aside his thick cape and was struggling to slip something over his head. John wanted to ask him what it was. He wanted to ask about the fire. He wanted to scream. John opened his burning mouth and tried to force sound from his lips.
The scream came — but not from him. It came from the woods behind him.
It began as a shriek, broadened into a howl, and ended with a snarl. Its ferocity commanded John’s attention. He obeyed, fixing his gaze on the screamer as it emerged from the forest.
The shadowy figure was large, at least as tall and bulky as John’s runaway mount, though he knew by its stalking gait and ominous growl it was no horse. There was also nothing equine about its luminous eyes. Big as dinner plates and lacking pupils of any kind, they shone in the night like beacons of yellow-orange light. As the creature crept closer, its indistinct shape resolved into that of a monstrous canine, its dark fur shaggy along its legs and withers but much shorter around its throat and face.
Halting its advance, the beast turned its glowing eyes first to Leski, then to John. Its long snout rose into the air, as if trying to catch the scent of prey. Its lips retracted, revealing clenched teeth that were white as snow and sharp as knives. There was another a low growl.
“Retreat, human!” warned the fairy. “The Hellhound will strike!”
John tried to comply but couldn’t. His legs were shaking uncontrollably. Despite Leski’s diminutive stature, strange dress, and mystical powers, his appearance wasn’t so different from that of John’s fellow human beings. But this monstrous beast with glowing eyes, this Hellhound, was something else entirely. Something out of a nightmare.
The creature’s lips parted. Between its jagged teeth, from somewhere deep in its throat, shone another yellow-orange light. It was tiny at first, like the tip of a burning candle. An instant later, the monster’s mouth was filled with flame.
John stumbled backward. Oh Lord, deliver me from the fiery furnace!
The Hellhound bounded ahead, its eyes and maw ablaze. John felt his legs give way beneath him. Crumpling to the hard ground, he breathed a prayer and braced for the burning bite of the monster.
It never came. There was a deafening screech, as if a flock of crows had cried out as one. The Hellhound halted its charge and turned to the side.
Leski stood a dozen paces away, the tail of his fiddle tucked securely beneath his bearded chin. As he swept an oddly sparkling bow back and forth across similarly sparkling strings, the Pixie bellowed a throaty song in a language John didn’t recognize. The resulting cacophony made John wince. Its effect on the Hellhound was similar: the beast dropped to its belly and covered its head with its front paws.
Catching John’s eye, the fairy jerked his head toward the forest. Run for it, he seemed to be saying. John did so, as rapidly as his quivering thighs and sore knees would allow. As he careened past the rector’s house, his mind reviewed what had just happened. Leski was playing the fiddle with seemingly hypnotic power. And he’d been carrying a lantern that cast a mysterious orb of light into the sky — just like at Yorktown. Back then, John’s fellow soldiers had been led away from the point of the British attack. Was it by the music of the fiddle, the orb of light, or a combination of the two?
Was the Pixie I ran into back then this very same Leski?
John stopped just before the edge of the forest and looked back the way he came. He could still hear the medley of string and song, interspersed with growls and groans.
I cannot just leave him to his fate.
When John arrived back at the courtyard, he saw the singing fairy and the snarling monster circling each other warily. Leski seemed to be trying to work his way behind the Hellhound, who was bucking its head as if trying to break an invisible leash.
The minister’s courage wavered. What can I hope to do against such a beast? Then came a flash of inspiration. The darkest time is just before dawn.
The fairy’s back was to John, so he didn’t see the human frantically searching the ground. When John found what he was looking for and cried out in relief, Leski whipped his head around. “You do not know how to—”
But John was already holding the magic lantern high and running excited fingers along its circular top. The thin filament of light inside grew wider, its brilliance causing John to squint. He looked up and saw what he had hoped: a ball of light above their heads.
The grating sounds emanating from Leski’s fiddle instantly ceased. Now the little man was playing a slow, sweet melody. The Hellhound was no longer rearing its head. To John’s amazement, it was swaying from side to side. John felt his own anxiety begin to subside.
“You are indeed a clever human,” said Leski, taking careful steps in John’s direction while continuing to play. “You guessed that only with the help of Pixie Light would my Summoning Spell be strong enough to trap the beast.”
John felt the lantern waver and reached up with his other hand to steady it. “I have heard this spell of yours before.”
The fairy looked confused. Then realization dawned. “A soldier of the Revolution, you said. There at the end, were you, at Yorktown?”
John nodded. “That’s where you and I first met.”
Leski’s eyes narrowed to thin slits. “Not a meeting. A collision.”
“Purely by chance, of course,” said John, though by way of explanation, not apology. The Pixie was, after all, helping the British attack us.
The fairy didn’t respond. Tilting his head, Leski began to sing in a soothing tone the same melody he’d been playing on the fiddle. The Hellhound still appeared spellbound, his entire body now rocking back and forth in time with the music. Then Leski lifted the bow from the strings, continuing the tune only with his voice, and began an entirely different tune on the fiddle — a rapid burst of notes.
When John first heard the fairy play the instrument, two decades earlier at Yorktown, he remembered feeling a desperate longing for his childhood home and companions. This night, Leski’s singsong voice had made him feel envy and regret. Minutes before, the Hellhound’s howl had filled him with rage. These beings do wield a powerful magic, but it isn’t like the old fairy stories I’ve read. They do not conjure treasure out of thin air. They conjure feelings.
What the Pixie just played on his fiddle produced only a tinge of emotion in John. Urgency.
“The hunters are coming, human.” Leski had resumed playing the sweet melody on the strings to free up his voice. “You best be gone when they arrive.”
“Hunters?” It took John a moment to understand. “Other Pixies, you mean.”
“Yes, others are coming — but not many. We never hunt at full strength anymore. Not enough of us remain. Our enemies saw to that.”
“Then you may yet struggle to defeat the monster.” John grimaced and flexed an aching leg. “Though my soldiering days are long gone, perhaps I can help you capture it.”
Leski arched an eyebrow. “Capture it? No. We are short of mages, too. Too dangerous to try to hold it in our monster pen. Even with Pixie Light, my spell will soon lose its grip. The beast’s will is too strong. I have fought its like before.”
“So you mean to . . .” John’s voice trailed off when he looked at the Hellhound. Its body continued to sway with the music, though it had turned its head to one side, yanking over and over as if trying to free itself. Its plate-sized eyes met his small brown ones. John somehow felt as though he could read those glowing eyes like a book. They still burned with rage, to be sure, but other feelings simmered beneath the surface, or it seemed to John. Determination. Frustration.
John’s attention thus diverted, he didn’t notice the crackling sparks and shimmering light. He didn’t notice the press of wind against his body or the fleeting sound of voices in the cold night air.
“Begone, human! When the hunters arrive, they will see two enemies here!”
That snapped John’s connection to the Hellhound. He stared at the fairy in disbelief.
“The hostile Folk who decimated our ranks had human allies.” Leski snapped.
Human allies with the Sight!
For the second time that night, John ran.
Also for the second time, he halted his flight when he reached the edge of the forest. Looking over his shoulder, he beheld the strangest vision of all. It was if Liberty Hall and the courtyard around it had sunk to the bottom of some gigantic pond with moonlight dancing across its translucent surface. Through the glimmer, John saw the distorted image of the great Hellhound, its enormous mouth thrust wide open, tongues of flame licking its jagged teeth. No longer bound by Leski’s spell, it was pouncing on two green-clad Pixies. They were, in turn, pointing spears up at the monster’s chest. Two more Pixies stood behind the Hellhound: an archer about to release an arrow and a swordsman, Leski, aiming a blow at the monster’s left leg.
None of the combatants moved. Then John realized his analogy was wrong. They weren’t submerged in a pond. It was as if the courtyard and all the beings engaged in battle within it — including the Hellhound and its gaping maw of fire — were encased in a solid block of ice.
ON THE WAY BACK through the woods to Lexington, John happened upon the runaway nag nibbling a clump of grass. After some coaxing, she agreed to carry the exhausted minister back to town, where he gratefully accepted the hospitality of an elderly couple and spent the rest of the night in fitful slumber.
It wasn’t until late the following morning that John heard the shocking news: Liberty Hall lay in ruins! Sometime during the night, while the caretaker and stable boy were away gathering firewood, the roof of the building had caught fire. They’d arrived in time to fight the blaze, but because their source of water was a distant spring, their efforts proved fruitless. There was already talk of moving Washington Academy closer to town rather than trying to repair the ruined schoolhouse.
The Hellhound claimed at least one victim last night, John realized, recalling his beloved Liberty Hall with deep regret. How many more did the monster claim before it met its end?
PART THREE — June 1831
THE SCHOOLMASTER SLAMMED HIS newspaper down so hard the nearby candle holder bounced loudly on the tabletop. He instantly regretted the outburst. He’d already taken advantage of Reverend Dowd’s hospitality by staying up all night in the parlor instead of going to bed. Now he feared the thump of his fist and the rattling of the candlestick would awaken his host and friend, the pastor of Raleigh’s Baptist church.
Still, my outburst had good reason. How could the senator profess friendship for such a man? Why does my son injure me so?
John Chavis wasn’t truly the senator’s father, of course. The man the North Carolina legislature had recently sent to Washington was a white lawyer and judge. John was a free person of color. But two decades earlier, a young Willie Mangum had enrolled in John’s classical academy. Although John had children of his own, he’d always considered his pupils part of his family. He could never resist calling each his “son,” especially when correcting him.
Having taken office only three months earlier, Senator Willie Mangum was already in need of correction. He’d lavished praise on Andrew Jackson, describing the president as a strong and judicious leader though he surely knew Jackson was neither.
Willie has turned his coat much too often: from Federalism to Democracy to Republicanism and back again.
John often thought of writing a letter to admonish his former student. Alas, Willie hadn’t replied to his earlier correspondence. And if he had any hope of persuading the Mangums to enroll their children in John’s struggling academy, lecturing the senator about his political mistakes wouldn’t help. Oh, my dear Willie, why haven’t you answered me? Do you distrust my motives? Or is it my color?
John didn’t want to believe that. In his academy, he’d taught both white and black students. He’d held them all to the same exacting standards and tried to treat them as equally as propriety would allow, educating his white students during the day and black students in the evenings. Lately, however, powerful politicians had spoken out against the education of colored children, including those born to free mothers. They predicted it would stoke unrest, like lava building up within a volcano, until it erupted into revolution. In the current climate, with rumors of potential slave rebellions running rampant, such sentiments were growing.
On this point only, the white politicians were in agreement with David Walker, another black minister from North Carolina whose controversial pamphlet An Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World had called for armed insurrection, if necessary, to liberate America’s slaves. “The bare name of educating the colored people,” Walker had written, “scares our cruel oppressors almost to death.”
Education is the key to our salvation, John agreed, and slavery a national evil. But if in response to such talk the state prohibits the schooling of black children, that will leave our people worse off than before — and me without the means to pay my bills.
Resigned to another sleepless night, John rose carefully from his chair, trying not to make it creak or to scrape its legs along the floor. He’d made enough noise already. Picking up the newspaper and tucking it into one arm, he hobbled to the front door and slipped out.
Although it was a foggy night, enough starlight slipped through the canopy of clouds to help him make his way around the familiar streets of the capital city. Moving slowly on his rheumatic legs, John threaded the grove of oaks on Moore Square, then headed north on Blount Street. Daybreak had not yet come, so he expected to have the city largely to himself. When he crossed Morgan Street, however, he heard voices in the distance.
John recalled the other news item he’d been reading at Reverend Dowd’s house, the one about the disaster in Fayetteville. Scarcely three weeks earlier, a fire had decimated that city’s Market Square. Among the gutted buildings was the old State House, where the legislature had met when Fayetteville was the state capital. It was the place where North Carolina’s leaders had ratified the federal constitution and officially joined the union. Now it was in ruins. Worried a similar accident might befall the current State House in Raleigh, the governor had hired local workmen to cover its flammable wooden roof with zinc sheets. They’d been working day and night ever since to finish the job.
Curious about their progress, John turned and followed Morgan Street to Union Square. The fog was thicker here. Even so, he could see the bare outline of the two-story State House. Even easier to see were the shapes of the three workmen on the roof. They were squatting around a flaming pot, which John supposed they were using to heat up their soldering nails.
Then John heard the song.
It had been many, many years. And he’d heard many fiddlers play many other tunes since then. But John recognized this song instantly. Its player was no ordinary fiddler. The workmen stood and looked up. Shining over the State House, its perfect form unmarred by the pre-dawn fog, was the familiar sphere of the Pixie Light.
After hovering above the workmen for a moment, the glowing globe moved to the south side of the building, sinking first to and then past the level of the roof. In response, one of the men crouched down and soon vanished from view. The other two followed. John guessed there must be a hole in the roof through which the men had installed a long ladder to a room inside.
Turning from the building, John worked his way along the eastern edge of Union Square, trying to spot the source of the light. But the fiddler saw him first.
“You have become an old man, John Chavis.”
The Pixie stepped out from behind an oak, holding the musical instrument against his chin as he continued to play its glistening strings. Braced against the tree trunk was the enchanted lantern. The little man precisely matched John’s memory of him: bearded, pointy eared, and wearing a cap, cloak, tunic, and hose of varying shades of green.
“You’ve hardly aged at all, Leski.”
“Naturally.” The fairy shot John a withering look. “Do you think I spend all my time wandering around in the Blur?”
When he saw John’s puzzled expression, Leski snorted. “You have gotten older, human, but no less ignorant. Time passes much more quickly in your world than it does in ours. For every year that passes in a Folk realm, twenty years pass in the Blur.”
That explains a lot. “So for you, our last meeting up in Virginia was only a year and a half ago, while for me it has been nearly three decades.”
Leski cocked his head to one side. “Not quite. I have spent some time in your world since then. That is the job of a ranger, after all — though for me, it has become much more.”
What did he mean by that? John said nothing, expecting the Pixie to explain. That didn’t happen. Instead, the fairy turned and walked toward the oak tree, still playing his fiddle.
John decided an indirect approach might be the best way to learn more. “Did you come back to this world to hunt more beasts like the Hellhound?”
The song stopped. “Have you seen it?” Leski’s voice sounded anxious.
“Why, no. I have met only one monster in my life, the night I met you. But I guessed correctly — you are hunting.”
The Pixie had been facing the oak. Now he spun around and shot John a look of disgust. “Not for Hellhounds. I have seen enough of them to last a lifetime.”
“So the battle at Liberty Hall was not your only one with them?”
“Neither the first nor the last.” The Pixie’s eyes darted to the State House, from which the three workmen were emerging. “My first encounter was shortly after our army returned from the Yorktown disaster. I was ordered back into the Blur to search for new home, should we find Norfolk under a new American government no longer to our liking. As we Pixies prefer to live near water, I followed the James River up from Norfolk, past the new capital at Richmond, until I reached a town called Lynchburg and a densely forested riverbank beyond. The place offered both the resources and the seclusion we would need to rebuild our colony. After investigating the site, I used a Message Spell to bring in others to prepare it for settlement.”
As John listened to the fairy’s story, he continued to watch the workmen. Whatever spell Leski had cast on them appeared to be still in effect. They headed away from the State House in single file, slowly, as if walking in their sleep.
“How the Hellhounds escaped detection, I do not know,” Leski continued. “Perhaps their combined wills were too strong. Not long after my fellow Pixies arrived, we discovered five of them hiding in a thicket. These were not the green-eyed Lesser Hellhounds I had seen before. They were Greater Hellhounds. Red-eyed firebreathers. The battle was bloody. Many of my companions fell, their bones crushed, their throats slashed, their flesh burned. But we prevailed. Only one monster escaped.”
Back in 1802, John had glimpsed just the opening stage of a battle between four Pixies and a single Hellhound newly freed from a magic spell. The image had been horrifying enough. He could scarcely imagine the carnage that five fully alert Hellhounds might cause. “That must have been a—”
“It was only the beginning,” Leski interjected. “I next saw a Hellhound the day I met you, then again on another ranging further south. Nearly every time I enter the Blur to hunt, I see one of those infernal beasts. They must truly infest your realm.”
It is as if the hunter has become the hunted, John thought, but did not say. “So you are on a hunt, then.”
The Pixie stopped playing his fiddle and leaned it against the tree. “You could call it that.”
John tried to recall what Leski had previously told him about fairy rangers. He knew one of their responsibilities was to obtain food and clothing. But surely the Pixie hadn’t come to the State House for those things Then John remembered what Leski had been seeking that long-ago night in Virginia.
“Books!” he exclaimed. “You came here hunting for more books!”
A quizzical smile creased the face of the little man. “Your government palaces have libraries, do they not?”
“We don’t call them palaces. Americans no longer have kings or lords. We choose our own leaders. That building over there is our State House, where our governor and General Assembly conduct the affairs of state.”
“Where they plot and scheme, more like.” Leski bent down to examine the enchanted lantern on the ground. “Of all the human artifices I have visit, they are among the most disgusting.”
John was incredulous. “Our capitol buildings disgust you? Why?”
There was no answer. The Pixie’s fingers danced along the carved devices on the lid. A few moments later, he stood and held the lantern in front of his chest with both hands, his eyes trained on the globe of light in the sky. John followed his gaze. The Pixie Light seemed to flicker, like a candle in a brisk wind. Then, simultaneously, it got smaller and brighter.
“Are you trying to cloud my mind?” John pressed. “Your spell won’t work, you know.”
The Pixie glared at the minister. “I owe you no explanation, human, and I will permit no interference with—”
Leski stopped in mid-sentence, his eyes widening in shock.
That was all John saw before something hard knocked him roughly to the ground. Pain lanced through his knees, hips, and right shoulder. His ears rang.
“Cursed be your kind!” shrieked the little man.
Ignoring the protests of his aching joints, John rolled on his back and lifted his head. The sight that met his eyes was out of some feverish nightmare. Leski had dropped the lantern and drawn his sword, holding its quivering blade in front of his contorted face. Advancing toward him was the shadowy form John had hoped never to see again. Its massive paws pounded the earth so hard John felt it tremble. The creature’s giant eyes shone with fury. Its massive mouth curled and snarled, emitting great puffs of dark smoke with every pant.
The Hellhound was panting, John realized, not growling. Somehow the realization yanked him from his dream-like state and brought him back to reality, his head clearer, his senses sharpened. Now the elderly minister could tell the monster’s steps were ponderous and heavy because it was limping. Its yellow-orange eyes were glowing like embers, not blazing like bonfires. Its breaths were weak and labored, not strong and menacing. Its mouth was curled, yes, but whether from anger or anguish he could not tell.
Leski saw the same signs. “You are old and lame,” he taunted. “Even alone, I will prevail!”
You are not alone, John was tempted to shout, recalling how he’d helped the fairy capture a far-more-dangerous Hellhound years earlier. But Leski appeared neither to need or to want his help.
Before the minister could think of a better reply, or anything else of consequence to attempt, the battle was joined. The Hellhound’s ungainly walk became an unsteady run. Leski reacted by lunging forward, his right foot planted in the dirt, his right hand thrusting the point of his sword into the face of the charging monster. It swerved to one side, flames swirling around the teeth and tongue of its open mouth.
Whether by accident or design, the maneuver created an opening for Leski to slash the hindquarters of the Hellhound as it barreled past him. John heard a gasp of raspy breath, followed by a yelp of pain as the monster spun around to face the swordsman again.
“When next you feel my blade, it will be the last thing you ever feel!” The Pixie’s mouth formed an exultant smirk.
The voice was surprisingly soft and high-pitched, given its source. It occurred to John that he ought to have been surprised by the source itself, but by this time he’d come to expect strange things to happen in the presence of fairies.
Leski glanced at the human. “What kind of trick is—”
“No … trick,” hissed the Hellhound. “I th…think. Now I sp…speak. Yet I do n…not feel.”
The Pixie wasn’t smiling any more. “I have heard the tales, of beasts with glimmers of intelligence.”
“Not just tales, I think,” John offered.
“They must be,” Leski insisted. “Nonsense tales, spread by the soft-hearted and believed only by the soft-headed. These are mindless monsters.”
“M…monsters?” There was a gurgling sound deep within the Hellhound’s throat. “My fam…family were k…killed by monsters.”
John glanced from the Pixie’s confused face to that of the Hellhound. He looked into the creature’s smoldering eyes. What he saw there wasn’t mindless rage. He saw agony, though not that of an animal in physical pain. It was the agony of emotional torment. John had read that expression on many human faces. For some, their torment was born of loneliness or desperation. For others, of guilt or grief. He’d seen torment written on the faces of fathers mourning the fate of daughters sold to faraway plantations. John had seen it written on the faces of mothers mourning the death of their sons.
He blinked and stared into the eyes of the Hellhound. It had spoken of losing its family.
She had spoken of losing her family.
“Leski, do you not—” John began.
But the fairy wasn’t listening to the human. He was running at the Hellhound, sword raised for the killing blow. The monster made no attempt to flee. Was she too wounded and weary? That’s how it seemed at first. Only after Leski tripped, lost hold of his weapon, and tumbled forward did John notice what the impetuous Pixie had not: the heavy brass lantern that lay on the ground between Leski and the Hellhound. And only after the latter’s mouth closed on Leski’s flailing left arm did John realize the Hellhound must have foreseen the fairy’s stumble and the opportunity it would give her.
“Let go, blast you, let go!” the Pixie wailed, his right fist pounding ineffectually against her clenched jaws and steaming snout. “Save me, John Chavis!”
Save you? The more John had learned about Leski and his Folk, the less he trusted them. That didn’t mean he would stand by and watch the fairy torn limb from limb. Save you? I do not possess such power. But I can help you find the One who does.
“Stop this!” he urged the Hellhound. “It will not bring them back!”
The creature’s eyes flared as if someone had stirred a dying campfire back to life. She jerked her head, causing Leski to scream in pain and terror.
“Kill the monster!” he begged.
“She is no monster,” John said. “She is a mother.”
Her campfire eyes dimmed again. A high-pitched whine began deep in the Hellhound’s throat, then turned into a long, spine-tingling howl as she let go of the Pixie’s arm and turned her great shaggy head to the sky.
“I was a mother.”
Leski scrambled to his feet, blood dripping from the bites on his arm. His green eyes glowered at the Hellhound, then turned toward the ground. But John had already thought of that. He’d shuffled forward and placed a foot on Leski’s discarded sword. “There’s been enough bloodshed. No more.”
“Do not presume to command me, human. This beast nearly killed me. Others like it killed my companions.”
“No, not others. It was her, always her.”
“You are a fool.” Leski took a step forward. “It could not have been the same monster.”
John shook his head. “Do you not have ways of finding and tracking your prey?”
The Pixie took another step, provoking a warning growl from the Hellhound. “Only Folk rangers can employ spellsong that way. Mindless beasts cannot.”
“She is not mindless, Leski. Is that so hard for you to accept?”
“It makes no sense,” the fairy insisted. “Why would such a creature be following me? What does it seek?”
“Justice,” growled the Hellhound.
“Vengeance,” John corrected her.
“They killed my mate! My children!”
Leski gasped. Eyes wide, he stared at the Hellhound. Finally he understands.
“You killed many Pixies, first at Lynchburg and then the night we fought you at the academy!” the little man accused.
The Hellhound bared her teeth. “You invaded our home.”
John turned and took a step toward her, his arms outstretched as if to embrace the Hellhound. “I understand your grief. But you can’t restore life by bringing death. You can’t change the past, only the future. The Lord I serve is just, yet He teaches us to respond to hate with love. ‘Blessed are the merciful,’ He said, ‘for they shall obtain mercy.’”
“More foolish prattle.”
The contempt in that voice prompted the minister to spin around in alarm. The triumph on Leski’s leering face confirmed John’s apprehension. The Pixie hadn’t gotten close enough to snatch up his sword. He held another weapon in his hand, one that John knew from experience could be more dangerous than any blade.
“What preposterous ideas you humans have,” said the fairy, holding the handle of the lantern in his right hand. “I was right to blame them for leading you astray. I erred only by underestimating how to combat them.”
Now it was John’s turn to comprehend a truth he should have guessed long ago. “The books! You never wanted to read them. Your aim was to destroy them.”
“Quite right.” While keeping his head up to spot any movement against him, the Pixie was trying, without much success, to manipulate the lantern’s controls with his injured hand. “On the night we fought the Hellhound, your beloved Liberty Hall burned to a smoldering ruin. You no doubt thought this infernal beast was responsible. No. It was I.”
“You failed,” John said. “The academy’s books were saved from the flame.”
Leski shrugged. “Even had they burned, my plan would still have failed. I went on to set many other fires in the Blur: in your human schoolhouses, your libraries, the shops of your booksellers. Many pages of words consumed by flame. It made no matter. Too many others remained. And too many words were already written on your ungrateful hearts.”
“You can’t destroy an idea.”
“True — but I can discredit it!”
Both the dismayed human and the suffering beast crept toward the Pixie, who merely skipped backwards with a derisive chuckle. “My weak arm may make it hard for me to work my lantern. But your weak legs make it impossible for either of you to catch me.”
John shook his head. “Whatever your plan is, it will fail. Whether you manage to cast your Pixie Light or not, I can resist your spell.”
“I can resist,” the Hellhound repeated, her words now more precisely enunciated as she began to master her new ability. “My mind is my own.”
The fairy lifted the lantern before his face. “I have no more need of its light. Only its heat.”
Puzzled, John trained his eyes on its gleaming glass panes and the oddly twisted shapes embedded in the brass above them.
“When we conjure Pixie Light,” Leski continued, “its most potent form requires both magecraft to form the orb and spellsong to manipulate the feelings of its observers. For times we range alone in the Blur, however, rangers carry magecrafted lanterns that cast a weaker but still useful Pixie Light. Quite by accident, I discovered that if I shrink the orb to a tiny point and aim it precisely, it does something else. Something wonderful.”
It was obvious what the fairy meant. John lurched forward again, followed closely by the Hellhound. “You’ll need time to work your device. We won’t give it to you.”
“I need no such gift!” The Pixie danced playfully away. Then he turned and sprinted.
Grunting in frustration, John followed as fast as his old legs would carry him. Stumbling and wheezing alongside him was the Hellhound, her pace hampered not only by prior infirmities but also by the bloody wound the Pixie had inflicted on her hindquarters.
“Too late!” taunted the little man as he dashed into the State House. By the time his pursuers reached the building, Leski had already disappeared into the upper level. By the time John and his companion made it up the stairs, Leski had already clambered up the tall ladder to the roof.
John’s heart sank. Thus far, their pursuit had been slow and difficult. Continuing it would be impossible. He knew he could never scale the ladder. Nor could the massive, ailing Hellhound. He turned to her, his hands pressed together, trying to think of the best way to convince her to flee the doomed building with him.
Of all the fantastical visions he’d experienced, nothing prepared him for this. The Hellhound was there, yes, huge and shaggy and panting from exhaustion. But below her head, her body was roiling and bubbling, as if it were the surface of a pond into which someone was hurling a series of stones. Before his amazed eyes, her legs straightened, her knees and ankles shifting downward, her dark fur nearly disappearing from them altogether. With great effort, the creature clearly unused to moving her body in this way, she rose up on her hind legs and staggered across the floor to the ladder. She reached up with her forelegs, which now ended in stubby-fingered hands rather than paws, and grasped the rung of the ladder closest to the level of her still-pupilless, still-glowing eyes.
Slowly, painstakingly, she began to climb. However the impossible feat was being accomplished, John knew he couldn’t duplicate it. So he wheeled around and headed for the staircase, determined to find a vantage point from which he could see what might happen next.
Once outside, he looked up to the roof and spotted the Pixie, who was cackling with glee and stomping as if to the beat of some unvoiced song. The timbers of the roof were already ablaze in several places, belching smoke and spitting bursts of flame at the dawn-streaked sky.
Leski spied him on the grounds below. “You cannot stop me,” he jeered. “I burned the old capitol of your miserable state. Soon the new one will fall. One by one I will tear down these edifices of arrogance, these symbols of the authority you humans claim for yourselves but that by right belongs to us and the human instruments we employ.”
“Why do you burn our capitols? We will just rebuild them.”
“Rebuild the structures, perhaps, but not what they signify. You forget, John Chavis, that most of your fellow humans lack the Sight. They know nothing of Folk, of monsters, of magic. Who will they think is destroying their palaces? With every fire, fear and suspicion will spread. In the South, they will blame abolitionists and the chattel they seek to liberate. Elsewhere they will blame malcontents and agents of foreign powers. There will be confusion, recrimination, chaos. Your pathetic ideas about freedom and self-government will prove inadequate. Out of fear, and a longing for order, the humans will return to the old ways. And we Folk will be there to help them, our spellsong renewed, our power restored.”
“This is madness!” John shouted. “What you say will never come to pass.”
“You think so?” The Pixie laughed again. “You, of all people, should know by now that what humans say is rarely what they truly believe. Inalienable rights? A fiction. Consent of the governed? A pretense. Equality? A lie.”
Again he cuts to the quick. “No, they are great and noble principles,” John insisted. “Great promises, though not yet fully kept.”
“They will never be kept!” Leski dodged sideways to avoid a plume of flame. “Power is all the matters, the power to—”
The plume parted, its flames shunted aside like thin curtains of silk. Again moving on four legs, her eyes blazing, her lips parted to reveal the steaming cauldron within, the Hellhound advanced toward her suddenly terrified prey.
“Get back!” Leski shouted. “Let me pass!” The Hellhound ignored his pleas. She stalked forward. He stumbled backward.
“Get back, beast, so we may both save ourselves!” Leski took another step backward.
The fairy’s scream was brief and full of fury. When it ended, so did he.
John wanted to find the body. But burning debris had fallen onto the nearby grass. The resulting wall of fire and smoke blocked his path. Mumbling a prayer, the minister turned his attention back to the roof. The Hellhound had moved to the corner with the fewest burning timbers. She stood there, shivering though the air was warm. Whatever burst of energy had propelled her to the roof was clearly gone. Exhausted and terrified, she looked down at John with plate-shaped eyes that no longer blazed with anger, or even simmered with grief. Only a few faint sparks remained.
“You were right,” she whispered. “The monster is gone. But so is my family. Vengeance tastes bitter on the tongue.”
“He chose his own path. Now must you. Can you make it back to the ladder?”
The Hellhound sighed. “No way ahead. No way down.” Her eyes were nearly black now, like spent coals.
John racked his brain for a solution. Much of the State House was now ablaze. He could also hear shouts and running feet. The workmen, freed from the Pixie’s spell, were no doubt rushing back to fight the fire. Other dwellers of the city would soon join them. Whatever might be done to save the Hellhound would have to be done quickly. There was only one way down, it seemed: to jump. If she were a much smaller creature, a cat or even a small dog, John might be able to catch her. But the massive Hellhound would surely crush him, injuring herself gravely if not mortally in the process.
Then he remembered what happened at the ladder.
“Can you, uh, change yourself?” he asked.
“I . . . I do not know,” the Hellhound breathed.
“How did you do it before?”
“I do not know,” she repeated.
John bowed his head. “All things are possible to one who believes.”
Fire singed her fur. She flinched and squeezed closer to the edge. “What does it matter?”
“If you were smaller, like my old hound Janus, I might be able to catch you.”
The Hellhound whimpered. “Too far. Too afraid.”
In his mind’s eye, John watched an untested youth nearly drop the musket from his sweaty hands at the first sound of battle. He watched an anxious young scholar squirm during his frequent examinations and wince at the frequent insults of envious classmates. He watched a newly commissioned minister nervously preach his first sermon to a sea of white faces, many skeptical, some openly hostile. He watched a worried schoolteacher wring his hands when the parents of a promising young student came to remove the boy from the company of other pupils whose skin happened to be a different color. He watched that same schoolteacher counsel wisdom and patience to those inclined to embrace neither — and then spend many sleepless nights agonizing over the future of his school, his family, his people, and his nation.
How had the soldier, the scholar, the minister, and the schoolteacher managed to conquer their doubt and fear? The truth was they never did. He never did, not on his own, for John Chavis had never truly been alone. None of the companions of his youth — family, teachers, old Janus the hound — had ever left him. Nor had the companions he’d met only through story, rhyme, and printed word. Cherished ancestors. Dashing heroes of countless tales. Brilliant thinkers, persistent prophets, faithful saints.
And with him always was the first and greatest Companion of all, a certain guide through any darkness. John thought first of the enchanted lantern, now abandoned and melting within a conflagration of its own making, and then of another Flame, unwavering, indestructible. A lamp unto my feet. A light unto my path.
John opened his eyes and looked up at the Hellhound once more. “I will catch you.”
WHEN THE LAST OF the bucket lines broke up, its members gazing at the ruined hulk of the State House as they dispersed, an old man in a frayed coat and smoke-stained shirt hobbled across the square to Morgan Street. Beside him plodded an old hound, her dark fur mottled with faint blotches of yellow and orange.
“Come on, Vesta, let’s go,” said the newly inspired man.
“Where will we go?” said the newly named dog.