“The Endless Land”
“It’s been three days now, since I left. Sift must be furious. There’s no going back now. The soldiers keep on coming, spreading wider. Killed two yesterday but now the sewers are crawling with them, which means I’ll have to go over, through the streets.
Damn if this isn’t heavy.”
April 30th - 1867
It was a Tuesday morning when the ship’s horn shook the walls of their tiny cabin, when their sanctuary came crumbling down. The Tamarassie had reached Boston safe and sound, but the harbour was busier than a brothel on payday. Or so Rhin had said, on looking out of the grimy porthole. Merion did not know enough to comment.
Now the faerie was crouching under the lip of the trusty rucksack, eying the towers and cranes of Boston’s sprawling port. It yawned like the maw of some giant stag beetle, and between its jaws, a horde of ships and fractured islands jostled for space. A forest of masts and spars. If Rhin squinted, his keen Fae eyes could make out the clocktowers and balloon docks of the city proper, lurking in the thick sea-fog that clung to the shoreline.
Merion was squinting too, but not because he wanted to sightsee, but because the rain seemed to be pursuing a vendetta against his eyes. It was that horrid fine; the kind that soaks you to the bone in minutes. Merion had been standing on deck for the past hour, watching America crawl out of the fog to greet them, piece by jagged and sea-washed piece.
Boston looked like London from the water, but flatter, as though somebody had flattened the whole city with the back of a colossal frying pan. Its buildings, for what few of them he could see through the confounded, blinding drizzle and sea-fog were squat and wood-built. At least by the docks they were. When he blinked, he spied a few lonely towers here and there, in the far distance, but nothing so special as the spires of his home. He felt cold on the inside, and the rain had nought to do with it.
‘Boston,’ he muttered.
‘Looks… delightful,’ Rhin replied, in a whisper.
‘An admiral once told me the only port worth taking the time to ogle at from the water was that of Venezia. Before the sea swallowed it, of course,’ Merion said, not knowing where that little scrap of nonsense had bubbled up from. ‘And I also remember my father saying something about the docks being the arse-hole of a city. Besides, we aren’t staying.’
‘Eloquent, that Prime Lord,’ Rhin chuckled, then immediately winced. He could even feel Merion’s body shift a little, through the straps of the pack. Strangely the boy didn’t sag, as he’d expected, but somehow stiffened. Rhin bit his lip. ‘Sorry. Too soon,’ he said. ‘You okay?’
Merion nodded. ’Just fine.’
Rhin knew that was a lie, but he didn’t push the matter. Melancholy crumbles, and anger snaps. He knew that better than anyone. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘that arse-hole better pucker up for our arrival.’
‘If we ever get to the wharf, that is,’ replied the boy.
Merion was right. There was a long, winding queue of ships between the bow of the Tamarassie and the wharfs of Boston’s inner harbour. They jostled like rats in a barrel. Merion scowled and pouted, and stuffed his gloved hands deeper into his pockets, trying to dig out some warmth. ‘What a foul welcome this is.’
It was then that a familiar voice rang out. ‘Hey, son! There he is. C’mere!’
It was the old American woman, swaddled in an over-sized sealskin coat, with a hood big enough for her head and some extra luggage. She was marching towards him across the slimy deck, bending her hand to him repeatedly.
Merion prodded himself with his own finger. ‘Madam?’
‘Don’t worry about ma’am-ing me, now. C’mon. We’re getting off.’
Merion shook his head. ‘Pardon me, it sounded as though you said you’re getting off?’
‘That we are. Captain Smout has ordered some boats be dropped, so we don’t have to wait for the ship to dock.’
‘But my luggage…’
‘Don’t worry, you can collect your things once the Tamarassie’s made port. Give her an hour or so. In the meantime, you’re free to roam the docks.’
Merion wasn’t very sure that he wanted to “roam” anything, never mind a foreign port, no doubt overrun with scoundrels and thieves. Witchazel’s instructions, which, incidentally, were crumpled up in a tight ball in the pocket of his overcoat, were to meet a gentleman by the curious name of Coltswolde Humbersnide. He would be waiting at the Tamarassie’s allotted berth, the Union Wharf, just south of where the Charles River met the Mystic River. What an odd name that was, Merion thought, and not for the first time since turning his back on London. He wondered if it were native-speak.
‘My apologies, madam, but I’m to meet a man at the Union Wharf, you see, and…’
The old woman simply tutted. ‘And so you shall, young’un. Now c’mon!’ And with that she seized his wrist and towed him away, off to the stern and a rickety boat bobbing up and down on the oil-slicked waters of the harbour. The scents that assailed his nose were quite astounding. Potent too. Merion felt that familiar bile rising in his throat again.
But he had no time for puking. The woman practically lifted him onto the rungs of the rope ladder, and down he went.
‘Please don’t fall. I’m not a fan of drowning,’ muttered the faerie in his rucksack.
Merion’s heart leapt for a moment as his foot missed one of the slippery wooden rungs. ’Neither am I, now keep your head down.’
‘Aye,’ Rhin said, as he melted into the shadows.
The boat lurched when he touched it. He felt a rough hand snatch at his flapping coat, and he was yanked down onto a wet bench. A family of three sat opposite him, eyes half-closed, silently enduring the drizzle.
‘Нет, спасибо,’ replied the man, in a language that was utterly foreign.
‘Of course.’ Merion shook his head and stared at the floor awash with water. Some inheritance this was turning out to be, he thought, and instantly the red flush of guilt flooded his cheeks, making his neck itch.
He heard a shout and looked up to see that the old woman was now shimmying down the ladder, and with ease too.
The boat rocked hideously as she climbed aboard, making the mother of the foreign family moan rather woefully. Merion could have sworn she was slowly turning green. The father gently patted her shoulder, whispering something in her ear, while the son was busying himself with kicking his shoes together.
‘Here we all are, then,’ announced the woman with a clap. ‘Are we off, boys?’
‘Yes ma’am,’ replied one of the two sailors, as he and another put their hands to the thick oars.
Mercifully, the drizzle became bored and moved south with the breeze that came to poke at the fog. A little sun pierced the murky morning haze, and Boston was allowed to sparkle for a time. Under the eager light of the spring sun, the docks took on a different feel. Colour spilled out of every nook and cranny. The cranes were not made of weathered, ashen wood, as Merion had judged, but of a wood that was a deep crimson mixed with coffee. The ships’ banners, which had hung so lifeless in the rain, now shone with bright reds and jolly yellows.
As they swung to and fro between the ships and the pillars of the tall wharfs, Merion caught glimpses of markets and inns and performers poking their heads above the crates and railings. A little something stirred in him then; a boyish lust for vivid colours and noise and perhaps the slightest hint of danger. He rose slightly from his seat, but the old woman by his side dragged him back down. ‘You’ll tip the boat, young’un. Be careful now.’
‘Of course, madam.’ Merion sat back down, but kept his neck craned and his eyes peeled for wondrous things. ‘Is it far?’ he asked. All thoughts of father and fate had momentarily been banished. Such is the fickle, blessed nature of a thirteen year-old.
Wharf by mesmerising wharf, they crept north. The current was against them, but the sailors were thick-set like their oars, and they battled on, grunting to each other as they rowed. They could hear the cries from the merchants and shopkeepers over the roar and splash of the port.
Fish! The freshest fish this side of the Iron Ocean. Kippers. Cods. Pollocks, and shark!
Glow-worms! Genuine glow in the dark worms! Buy two and I’ll make them glow in the day too!
Pickled crow eggs for sale!
Genuine wolf-skin caps!
Roll up, roll up, and feast your eyes on my special…
Meat! Every meat under the sun, and under the earth too! Loin of bat, in fresh!
Merion let himself drown in the noise.
Before long, even the gaps between the big ships became crowded, and they were forced to cut their journey short. The boat’s nose was pointed wharfward, and was soon nudging the cloth fender of a little pontoon. A skinny set of stairs led up to the main promenade.
Merion got to his feet first. As the sailors tied the boat off, he hopped ashore, swiftly followed by the old woman. He followed her up the steps.
‘Now, madam, how exactly do we, I, get to Union Wharf from…’ His words were stolen by the sudden roar as his head cleared the top stair. All too suddenly, he was drowning in a sea of humanity.
The promenade was flooded with people, all heading in seemingly opposite directions. It was a wonder there was no screaming, no injuries. It deafened and blinded him all at once, and it was all he could do to not get swept away in the current. He found the woman’s strong grip around his wrist again, hauling him through the river of people and out on to the quieter side of the promenade, where painfully colourful stalls lined the squat brown buildings of the harbour.
Merion took a moment to dust himself down, and to check his pack (and faerie of course) had not been ripped from his shoulders in the stampede. All was safe, and so he turned to his helper. ‘My thanks, madam,’ he began, but quickly stopped as he noticed she was walking away. ‘Erm. Excuse me? Madam!’
Thankfully she stopped, though she only turned her head. ‘What is it, young’un?’
‘How do I get to Union Wharf, from here?’
‘Go thataway,’ she raised a hand to point down the promenade. ‘And keep on going til you see the sign for it. North, understand?’
‘Then good. Fare well, young’un. You keep your skin on, in the wilds,’ she said, waving.
And so Merion was left standing alone, sandwiched, between the crowds and the merchants, in a foreign city and on the cusp of a strange land, and chilled to the bone by the woman’s parting words.
‘See?’ He could hear Rhin chuckling. ‘The bolts are loose.’
‘What on earth did she mean by that?’ Merion said, his voice cracking ever so slightly.
‘Not a clue, my friend.’
The young Hark scowled. ‘Well then. North it is.’
After a few hundred yards of violent jostling, the promenade began to widen, and naturally the crowd thankfully began to thin. The buildings grew taller too, step by step and inch by inch. On the surface, Boston shared a heart-aching number of similarities with faraway London. There were the proud men in their tails and their top-hats. There were the ladies of high society, shrouded in servants and tittering between themselves. There were street performers, beggars, and wiry street children, covered in filth from head to toe. And the whores of course, whistling at every eligible male that passed. Merion couldn’t help but stare. One girl, her shirt invitingly unbuttoned, caught his eye and winked. She waggled a finger at him, but Merion’s nerve failed him, and he hurried on.
Sadly, no matter how hard Boston pretended to be London, Merion couldn't help but ignore the city’s feral undercurrent. The doorway of America was tinged with something wild. Perhaps it was the glint in the eyes of the men that lingered in dark doorways, with guns at their belts and hats pulled low over their faces. Perhaps it was the occasional gibbet hanging here and there, cradling skeletons in old uniforms.
The edges were simply rougher. The polish just not as bright. No matter where he looked, or how hard he pretended, there were no towering arches and white pillars, no slender smoke-stacks and shining examples of industry, no scarlet soldiers on patrol, no copper-gold balloons swimming amongst the clouds. And there wasn’t a single roast chestnut barrel anywhere to be seen. Merion’s stomach growled in anguish.
‘Are we close, do you think?’ he asked of Rhin, distracting himself with conversation.
The faerie hummed. ‘Little further, I think. What’s that next sign say?’
Hanging above the arches of each major wharf were boards painted with curling letters. Merion mouthed each of their names as they passed. Goldrock Wharf. Long Walk Wharf. Ebenezer Wharf. Lincoln Wharf. Union Wharf…
’We’re here. Thank Almighty,’ he said, slightly relieved.
‘And the Tamarassie is almost here, look.’ Merion felt Rhin move in the rucksack, and he turned to face south, where the battered old tub could be seen worming its way between cargo tugs and fishing skiffs.
Merion breathed an almost contented sigh, and began to look around. The wharf was almost empty, save for a rain-soaked blonde man with freckles adorning his cheeks, rightly wrapped up in a suit that was too small, even for him. He was holding something in his hands.
‘That man has a sign with my name on it,’ Merion said.
‘Better go see what Mr Sign wants, then.’
‘I’d hazard a guess at me,’ Merion muttered.
Gloved hands still buried deep in his pockets, he strode over to the young man, his chin tilted at just the right angle. ‘Good morning, sir,’ he called out.
The man beamed and then bowed not once, but twice, as if he hadn’t performed it right the first time around.
‘Welcome to America,’ he said, striding forward to thrust out a hand. ‘Coltswolde Humbersnide, at your service. It’s not every day we have a son of the Empire visit, I can tell you that,’ he proclaimed, in a crumbling parody of the Empire’s tongue. It was as though somebody had punched his accent in the face. Most words had all the tone of America, yet every now and again a word would slip, and the man would squawk a word that sounded suspiciously British. Perhaps he was stuck between the two.
Merion bowed in return. ‘Tonmerion Harlequin Hark, sir. A pleasure. Though I am quite confused. My father always said there was no love for the Empire in America.’
Humbersnide’s cheeks flushed with a smidgeon of red. ‘Oh, well. No. I suppose there isn’t. But in any case, I think it’s a downright,’ and here the accent veritably fell over and died, ‘pleasure to have you here, in our fine city.’
Merion luckily remembered his manners. ‘Thank you, Mr Humberside.’
‘Please, call me Coltswolde. I work for the same firm as Mr Witchazel, you see. Boston branch. We have been here eleven years now, and it was the first in the New Kingdom.’
Coltswolde bowed again. ‘Thank you, sir. Now, my instructions were to meet you here and put you on a locomotive going west, with these tickets,’ he informed the boy, brandishing a sealed envelope.
‘Wonderful,’ replied Merion, his voice flat.
‘Might I enquire where it is that you’re going?’
The young man almost dropped his sign. ‘Wyoming?’ he echoed.
‘Yes, that’s right. Why, is there a problem?’ Merion demanded.
Humbersnide gulped something down and then cracked an unsteady smile. ‘Not at all. I just hear it is rather hot, this time of year. Nice for a holiday, of course. Better than all that bloody rain, eh?’ He chuckled weakly, and fell silent with a cough.
‘I’m not on holiday,’ Merion muttered.
It was an uncomfortable hour that passed them by, spattered with polite and mumbled conversation here and there. All the while, the Tamarrasie crept forward until her rust-bucket sides were making the fenders moan. Ropes were thrown, planks laid out, and the slow process of unloading began.
As soon as the first few items of luggage hit the deck, an idea blossomed in Merion’s head. ‘Mr Humbersnide, I hope it’s not to bold of me to ask you such a favour, but it seems I have hurt my arm on the boat ride. Would you mind helping me with the luggage? The sailors should point them out.’
Coltswolde’s polite smile wavered at the thought of manual labour. He had seen the size of the trunks being unloaded onto the bustling wharf, and he had just remembered he had forgotten to hire a cart. ‘Er…’ he croaked. ‘Of course.’
As Coltswolde stumbled off down the wharf, busy praying that Merion had travelled lightly, Rhin patted the boy on the back. ‘Nice,’ he said.
‘I think I deserve a little bit of a break, after nine days at sea,’ Merion replied with a sigh. Rhin patted him on the back through the rucksack.
‘Damn right,’ he replied.
‘Five days?!’ Merion spluttered. ‘Just how big is this country, Mr Humbersnide?
While Merion gawped, Humbersnide read through the schedule and totted up the hours. ‘New York, and from there to Philadelphia, then Pitt’s Berg, Chicago, Cheyenne, and then finally, the brand new railroad to Fell Falls, the last stop. One thousand, two-hundred miles… divided by… twenty… Yes sir. Five and a half days, it seems. Plus stops for water and coal. So perhaps six.’
‘On a train. This train?’ Merion’s eyes switched again to the locomotive that had just sidled up the platform. The boyish excitement had returned, inconvenient and inappropriate though it may have been.
The locomotive was heart-thumpingly fascinating, he could not deny it. It was a veritable monster straining at the bit, salivating on the gleaming tracks. Steam leaked from its bared teeth, dripping water on the platform. The flanks of its long boilers bristled with wires and cogs and mechanical arms, thin slits cut like gills glowing in places, betraying the fire stoked in its belly.
This locomotive, like the city it seemed so eager to flee, was also feral. Not like the sleek engines of St. Vanquish station that Merion had often spent long hours staring at; with their polished silver plates so clear you could see yourself in them. This engine was a wild beast in comparison. Still, there was a part of him that couldn’t wait to feel it gallop.
‘No, Master Hark. Four altogether,’ added Coltswolde, shrugging casually. ‘This is why they call America the Endless Land. Vast, she is. My my.’
‘I’m starting to realise that,’ Merion groused.
Coltswolde's face had taken over a distant look. ‘Vast and endless, that’s true, but this railroad will change all of that. Transcontinental, they’re calling it. Forging a path straight across the desert and onto the shores of the Last Ocean, eventually. The Serped Railroad Company have spent years trying to conquer that desert. What with all the trouble from the natives and those rai…’ Coltswolde realised what he was saying and clamped his mouth shut.
Merion folded his arms. ‘Please, don’t stop on my account,’ he challenged him, but Coltswolde just coughed loudly and busied himself with the luggage instead, manhandling it awkwardly down the platform. Merion would get no more out of him on the matter.
That old lump had returned to stick in his craw. One more worry to add to the pile. He had spent turing the cold, rumbling nights on the ship letting his mind wander to dark places, spinning fears out of the shadows. His father’s murderer, going unpunished. Harker Sheer being overrun by looters. His father’s businesses, taken. Witchazel stealing his inheritance. Now he had a new grim thread to tug at: the thought of not returning home at all. Of succumbing to the dangerous wilds of America. And so it was that fear tickled the skin of his back, and laid a cold hand upon his neck.
‘Don’t listen to him. We’ve only met two people on this voyage, and both of them have been stark raving mad,’ Rhin reassured him, whispering as loudly as he dared from the rucksack.
Merion wasn’t convinced. ’I’m starting to think they’re all bloody mad,’ he muttered in return.
‘Look, if this land’s as wide and as endless as they say, it’s probably just all rumour and wives’ tales. Warped whispers. Wyoming’s probably harmless. Too wild for these city boys.’ There was more hope than fact in that last sentence, but Rhin didn’t let it show. ‘And besides, we want to toughen you up, don’t we?’
‘Even if Coltswolde is right about Wyoming, it isn’t as though I have a choice.’
‘Maybe not, but even if he is, America’s going to have to get through me first.’
Merion felt the warmth of Rhin’s friendship quell the cold for a moment. The young Hark stuck out that stiff upper lip of his. ‘Well, they say a gentleman never shrinks from his duty,’ he mumbled, just loud enough for Rhin to hear. ‘It’s too late to run away now.’
‘That’s the spirit. Anyway, we can always get you a gun when we get to Fell Falls.’
‘No guns,’ Merion snapped abruptly, then softened. ‘No guns.’
‘A knife then,’ Rhin offered.
‘It won’t be Fae steel, but we’ll find you some good old fashioned human steel instead,’ mused the faerie.
‘One knife against the wilds of the endless. Hardly seems fair.’
Rhin chuckled. It was good to see some mirth in the boy. He had heard him tossing and turning in the night, muttering worrisome things. Tonmerion was hurting, that was obvious enough, but the simple fact he was putting on a brave face was all that mattered for now. There was hope there. Rhin just had to get him to Fell Falls, to that last stop. It would be different there. Merion would see.
‘Come on,’ said the faerie, ‘let’s get moving.’
‘Right you are,’ Merion cleared his throat and nodded affirmatively. ‘Mr Humbersnide, sir!’ he shouted.
Coltswolde came shuffling back along the platform. Merion showed him his best smile. ‘Yes, Master Hark?’
‘I trust I can leave my luggage in your capable hands?’
Humbersnide’s face underwent a series of twitches as he deciphered the boy’s meaning. ‘Er… of course, young sir. In my capable hands.’ He even had to look at his hands to check that yes, they were indeed capable.
‘Good! My thanks to you, Mr Humbersnide. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a train to catch,’ Merion replied, and before Humbersnide could make any comment, or twitch any further, the boy departed, quickly striding across the wooden boards towards his carriage.
‘If only we could take him with us,’ said a voice from the rucksack.
‘True, though I’m sure we’ll manage to find another willing helper. My father always said that if a man wasn’t a lord, or above a lord, then he must be a servant.’
Rhin winced. ‘I’m not too sure the Americans will take to kindly to that logic. Especially after all the wars and such.’
Merion shrugged again. ‘This Kingdom is indebted to us, Rhin. They may not pay their taxes any more, but we built them. And a son should always do what his father asks of him,’ he intoned.
Rhin snorted. ’What, like keeping secret faeries in the garden?’
‘You found me, not the other way around, friend.’
No answer came from the rucksack.
When he found his allotted carriage, he paused just outside the door for a moment, his hand hovering above the twisted iron railing that sprouted from the rain-spattered wood of the carriage. From there we could lay his eyes along the tracks. Straight as a spear they were, glinting in the sparse light of day. They carved an almost perfect path through the city, and if he looked hard enough, he could just about make out hills, forests, and green fields beyond. Endless Land, indeed, he snorted. Everything had to end at one point.