Captain’s Log #6
Date: 25th of June. Noon.
Location: At anchor in cove, but not for much longer.
Conditions: Sun’s heat nigh overwhelming. But is it a human sun?
I sat with Lynch and looked at nothing, in all directions. I looked at the beach, the cove, the trees; I looked at the glass palace, the magical objects inside. I looked at no living soul, anywhere but for the boy next to me.
I knew then that we must seize this palace, wresting it from the grip of its sorceress-succubus-queen. But how? My mind sailed back through a hundred stories of Faerie-Land, the tales that accompany any Irish boy on the path to manhood; none told of any man conquering a Faerie keep. I knew clever ways to escape their clutches, involving wagers and games of chance or skill; but never had I heard of a man taking possession of a Faerie home.
But what choice had we? We must have shelter, and fresh food, and the Grace must have that beach. Perhaps O’Flaherty will find a place better suited, but if not, we have no time to creep along the coast in search of a more accommodating anchorage. So be it: we will treat this as a ship to be grappled and boarded, her captain’s disposition and the secrets of her hold unknown to us, and cause for caution, but not cowardice.
First, then: information. Lynch and I consulted and then split to walk the perimeter of the palace; Lynch took the landward side, as the lad cannot swim, and I went out to the strand and the sea. I gave him my pistols and powder, and cautioned him to run from all ills; he assured me he would. Good lad, that Balthazar Lynch. I watched him go, as quiet as a church mouse in his deck-rough bare feet, even slung about with enough killing implements to board a ship by himself, and then I started on my path. I do not hesitate to admit that I crawled on my belly away from that domicile: the last thing I wished was to draw the Faerie Queen’s attention.
I made it safe to the deeper brush, and then I rose to a crouch and made my way rapidly out along the strand. It was an easy enough trek, the underbrush thin, only clumps of tall grass and more of those puff-ball shrubs, with trees spreading their canopy overhead. I slowed as I neared the end of the strand, as I could readily imagine a watchtower out here; there could not be a better place to ensure early warning of attack or storm, or from whence to signal passing ships. But there was none. Perhaps they do not need this in Faerie-Land. I determined I would place men here, should our design succeed. I looked back to the north, but could not make out the Grace, hidden by a curve of the shore and treetops taller than her masts. I was gladdened by this, for we do not seek attention.
Then into the water and across the cove. I kept my stroke small, so that only my head would be visible from shore, and the burning sun still not far above the horizon would prevent any vigorous scrutiny. The water, ah! It was as warm as any bath, and a clear blue that I had never seen, not even in the purest mountain stream of my Ireland, though I have heard as much from transported men such as my quartermaster. Still, one always expects exaggeration in a seaman’s tales, so this confirmation was a surprise. A most welcome one, after three months aboard ship without bathing.
It was a matter of minutes to cross the cove, through the gentle chop, and under the calls of seabirds; with every breath, this Faerie-Land seemed more of a paradise. I knew of the temptatious nature of the dwellers Underhill, however, and I hardened my soul against the beauties and comforts around me. We will not stay here, not against our will, nor with it. Men do not belong in this place. We will take what we need, and we will depart for familiar shores. I swear it.
I emerged, dripping, and moved slowly up the beach on the southron side, crawling like a serpent until I was hidden once more from the palace’s sight by shrubbery. I made my way along, observing all I could of that Fae place, though what I saw, I could not understand.
When I had gone an hundred paces inland, I heard a rustle nearby and tensed for confrontation, but ’twas only Lynch. We withdrew somewhat from the glass palace – there was another wall, identical to the first, blocking the southern approach; we crouched close, though we did not look at each other as we spoke, but kept an eye both to the palace and to the wall, alert for sentries walking its length.
Lynch confirmed my own strange findings. This palace appeared to hold no guards at all, not a single man-at-arms, nor even a maidservant that we had seen. There were no guardroom, no watchtowers anywhere; Lynch had described a pleasant path leading right to the door, without moat or gate to bar the way! Stranger still: we found no garden, no livestock, no fishing smack or nets, not even a well or a rubbish heap or a privy – though Lynch confessed he had seen many objects and structures he could not surely identify.
Perhaps the Faerie Queen does not need guards. And perhaps she does not need servants beyond her own magic. Does she not need to eat? Do the Faerie Lands not produce food as we know it, grown from earth and water and sunlight? Too, would she not wish for a retinue, for companions to while away the lonely hours? If this sorceress’s existence be naught but solitude, silence broken only by the crash of waves, then all the beauty of this place comes to nothing. I will take my bonny ship and my salty lads, with thanks.
Lynch led me back the way he had come, so I could see some of these strangenesses myself. He showed me the door, with its welcoming path; there was a large shed, perhaps a barn, connected to the palace by another path – stones set in the even ground, bordered with a strip of tiny pebbles – but still, there were no animal sounds nor smells, and I saw neither fodder nor dung.
We were moving around to the far side of the barn-shed when the palace door opened and we held still, moving only enough to observe. The sorceress herself emerged, now dressed in clothing only slightly less strange than before: a thin skirt that met no standard of decency I have known; it covered less than a slip or nightdress, and her coat ended mere inches below her waist. Her shoes were like slippers, but her heels were raised on spikes; she wore a strange mask that covered only her eyes with a strip of dark, hard material, stone or metal, I could not say, but she could apparently see through it, somehow. She walked to the barn-shed, carrying a cloth bag of some kind behind her shoulder, the bag as wide as her shoulders and hanging behind nearly to her knees, flat and flexible as a cloak; in her other hand she held a case with a handle on top. She raised the hand that held the case – was it leather? Perhaps hardened, to hold the boxy shape? Or leather-clad wood? – and pointed at the barn-shed; there arose a rumbling noise from the far side, as of a small herd of cattle moving within; but no cattle emerged.
I heard a bird’s chirp from inside the barn, and then sounds like heavy doors opening and closing. The sorceress returned to her palace and swiftly emerged again with two more boxes, even larger and heavier than the first two; so massy she must drag them along the ground, though quick and smooth as if she were carrying only milkpails or a posy of daisies. Surely any wooden chest of that size would be far too heavy for a woman to carry – but she is Fae. Who can say what is heavy to her, or what strange otherworldy material makes up the substance of her possessions? And they could not be wood nor leather, not of any animal I have known: both of the boxes were a pink so bright it hurt the eyes to see.
This time she set down her burden, closed the door of her palace and locked it with a key too small to see – or perhaps it was but the touch of her elfin hand – and then dragged her chests to the barn again. More heavy doors closing, and then from within we heard a rumble like the growling of some great slavering beast: we readied our weapons, sure she was setting loose a pack of Faerie hounds, or perhaps bears, wolves, lions.
I do not know what came out of that barn. It was shaped something like a wagon, and the sorceress sat within it, only her head and shoulders above the raised sides, and she was blocked on one side by a window affixed to the wagon. But the wagon was bright red, and it shone and gleamed in the sun; it had wheels, but the wheels had no spokes. There was a metal grill on the side facing us as it moved out of the barn, with two round protuberances that could have been eyes, but I saw no signs of life in that thing.
And the greatest mystery of all: if it was a wagon, there were no beasts drawing it. It moved of its own accord, though I do not doubt it was guided by the sorceress’s Fae will.
She drew away from the barn, paused, and I heard the same rumbling and clattering from the far side of the barn as the sorceress had caused with the wafture of her hand; perhaps it was a door closing as magically as the glass door of her palace had opened to the sea? Then the wagon she rode in rumbled and growled, and then moved away and out of our sight, blocked by the barn-shed we crouched beside. And we were left alone, beside the unguarded palace of a Faerie Queen.
We waited, still as calm water, for a hundred breaths. Then, when nothing else moved, we thought her gone, for now. I set Lynch by the door to keep watch for her return, after first leading me back to the north wall, closer to the Grace; I gave him the strictest instructions not to go inside, not to leave the shelter of the trees, but just to watch. Then I scaled the wall, again with the help of a close-growing tree and with no more difficulty than before, and then made my way back to my ship. I cannot describe the warm rush of joy I felt in my breast upon setting my foot once more on the Grace’s deck; this ship is my home in these strange waters, as well as my steed for traversing them, and I do love her so.
I reported only our current status to O’Gallows, gave him orders to keep watch for O’Flaherty’s return, and then retired to my cabin to set this down in my log. I am starting to believe this document is an important one: perhaps when we return to Ireland, I will carry the records of the only trip men made Underhill and back again since the days of yore.
We will make it back again. This I swear.
The glass has turned twice since I returned to the Grace, and O’Flaherty and Carter are now here, as well. I do not know what to make of their report, but I set it down here, while they refresh themselves and ready the men for the assault.
The first words out of O’Flaherty’s mouth once my cabin door had closed behind him were: “‘Tis paradise, Nate! This be the pirate’s dream, sure it is!”
“Aye,” I said. “But such is the way of this place: to seem like every glorious wonder a man ever clapped eyes on. But it is a trap, sure as you stand there before me.”
He frowned and then his brows raised with surprise. “Ye know where we are? Did ye find a landmark, or a guide?”
“We are Underhill,” I told him then, “in Faerie-Land.” I had said nothing to the men of my discoveries, nor to Ian; I wanted O’Flaherty’s opinion and any further evidence he could provide, so I could prove my sanity when I told the crew. And though I like the man not at all, and trust him but little more, I cannot fault the mind hidden behind that unpleasant face.
That face frowned again – ’twas the ugliest sight I had seen yet on this day of wonders, and it made me smile to place its scarred, filthy lumpen grotesquerie beside my memory of the Faerie Queen’s ethereal loveliness in my mind’s eye – and O’Flaherty sat himself on my sea chest. “What did ye find?” he asked. “Where is Lynch?”
Though it rankled to have to report first, as it rankled to have him make so familiar in my cabin, I reminded myself that he and I are of equal rank, according to our ship’s Articles, signed by every man aboard, and by me. So I told him of the cove and its beach, and of the palace of magical wonders, and especially its beauteous mistress. I confess I waxed somewhat poetic in describing her, since I was looking at his hairy, warty brow as I did so, which afforded me some amusement; though I kept that hidden, of course.
But when I had finished, O’Flaherty shook his head. “I do not think we are in the land of the Fair Folk,” he said to me. “The one we found was far from fair.” And he pulled from inside his shirt the three objects that rest on the shelf before my eyes as I write this. As I stare at them now, I must agree with him: the Fae would not have such things. This is the stuff of men.
But then what did I see at that glass palace?
Was it not real? Were my eyes deceived?
I know not.
O’Flaherty and Carter had trekked north, their experience identical to mine and Lynch’s, but lasting somewhat longer in the swampy act; their slog through mangrove and mud and biting insect was closer to two hours than one. But finally, the trees thinned for them as well, and they saw – the pirate’s paradise, as O’Flaherty said.
“Ships,” he told me. “Ships and boats of every size, from dinghies and wherries to craft as large as the Grace, and greater still, curse me for a liar else. There must have been a thousand of them, tied to piers and docks and quays. And not a single cannon among ’em.”
I scoffed at this, of course, but he assured me: he and Carter had explored carefully. He had even managed to creep up and peer into one of the smaller boats, and there was not a single piece aboard. Not a firing port, not a barrel of powder, not a cannonball stack, as far as the eye could see.
“‘Twas a fishing fleet, then. Was it not?” I asked him.
He scowled and nodded. “Aye, there were fisherman’s boats, right enough. I saw poles and lines, and a few nets. Some were pleasure boats, as the fine bloody folk use for boating on the Thames or the bloody Shannon, and a few were little more than small boys’ coracles. But Nate, there were masted ships like I’ve never seen before – and some even larger, without masts or sails at all, stab my liver! Perhaps they be galleys, as the heathen Moors row, but I saw no oars, nor ports nor benches. And I looked, smite my eyes if I didn’t.”
I nodded. “Aye – they are Faerie craft, no doubt, and moved by the Fair People’s magic, just like that wagon I saw that spirited away the Sorceress.”
O’Flaherty paused to consider. “Aye,” he said finally. “Perhaps.” He pushed the three objects into my hands. “But I think no Faerie magic made these.”
He had a bottle, a wine bottle with paper somehow glued to it. “Boone’s Farm Strawberry Hill,” it proclaimed. I took off the top, after a few moments tugging at it before I found it had to be twisted off – and what glass blower could thread his work so a cap could be screwed on? – and sniffed. That smell was enough to convince me O’Flaherty had reason in what he said, though the glass palace in my memory still held sway over my thoughts. Perhaps a taste of the dregs left in the bottle would have convinced me entirely, but I couldn’t stand to put my tongue to the test. There was also some tobacco, tiny cigars wrapped in paper and enclosed in a paper box marked “CAMEL.” I broke one up into my pipe and lit it; it tasted strange, but still allowed me a sweet smoke, and at my urging, O’Flaherty joined me.
Then we looked at the third object.
I don’t know how to describe it. It was made of paper, but bound like a book or a pamphlet, with tiny slivers of bent metal, and it lacked a cover of leather or wood or cloth and the paper was unlike any I have ever seen: it was slick, and it shone under the light. The paper was covered with images far more than words, and such images! If they were portraits, then the greatest artists of history are mere children flinging paint around like morning porridge by the spoonful compared to the genius who painted that; but for the size, and the object in my hand, I would have thought I looked on living flesh.
Lots of living flesh. Every inch of living flesh, in fact.
I have known men who owned portraits of women. I have known many men who carried locks of hair or small swatches of cloth to remind them of a woman’s scent, the softness of her skin. Of course I have known boys who drew or carved the shape of a woman in secret, as a canvas to paint the dreams of love upon.
They were nude. Bare as any babe, but no childish shapes were these! Breasts of every sort, legs and arses and . . . and . . . EVERYTHING! Pages and pages of – EVERYTHING! I know not who this “Bare Bitches” is, whose name adorned every page and must thus be the artist behind these images (nor do I know why he bears a dog’s name), but I long to meet and talk with him. If he owns a brothel, with such ravishing beauty there, so much smooth and willing flesh, then I know where my men will spend every coin we plunder, and every one they can beg and borrow, too.
O’Flaherty had found these things, the bottle, the tobacco, the wondrous pamphlet, on a man he had discovered unconscious under a tree by the shipyard. “Sure and he was drowned in that wine, for you could smell it from ten paces away – though it might have been swallowed up in the stench of the man himself, damn my nose.” Somewhat familiar with the look and behavior of a drunkard, O’Flaherty and Carter had not hesitated in searching the snoring man’s filthy garments for booty or information. I asked if they had found any coin, and O’Flaherty said no, but the shifting of his gaze when he said it told me otherwise. I said nothing then, but kept it in mind: should our conflict ever come to a head, this would be the knife hidden in my sleeve. O’Flaherty had signed the Articles, too – had in fact introduced the idea to the men, along with the existence of his position and the insistence on every man voting on each decision affecting the ship and crew, all ideas garnered from his time cruising in the Indies – and the penalty for holding back loot from the company was as clear as the water on these shores.
But information was the most vital booty that O’Flaherty brought back. Now we know that the coast to the north is no good to us, being nothing but swamp to the edge of the shipyard that, though it might give us rich pickings in future, offers no safe haven for the wounded Grace and her exhausted, depleted crew. And now we know that, though none of us can possibly say where we are, nor what manner of people live on these shores – nor can I explain the magical place that Lynch and I saw, nor give a name to the woman who ruled it, be she human sorceress or Faerie Queen – still we are in a world of men. Men who drink, and smoke, and lust. O’Flaherty has shown that to my satisfaction.
Perhaps I should not dread a face-to-face encounter with that sorceress, after all. She did eat and drink like a woman; perhaps she is no more than she seems. I am sure to have the chance to find out, once we have taken her palace for our own.
O’Gallows will remain. It should be me, while he and O’Flaherty lead the assault, but I am needed to lead the way to the glass palace and Lynch. To make Ian’s task easier, I will take both O’Flaherty and Burke with me, along with Moran, Carter, McTeigue, MacManus, O’Finnegan, Sweeney, and Ó Duibhdabhoireann – the last only so Ian will not have to call out his name shouting orders. The man’s Christian name, Ceallachan, is not far simpler; though he responds to Kelly when the rum doesn’t make him forget. He lost an eye to a splinter when the Lash’s men fired on us, and hasn’t been the same man since.
That leaves Ian, Surgeon Vaughn, and O’Grady, the cook, along with Murphy, Finlay, Gallagher, Rearden, Fitzpatrick, Doyle, and O’Neill. ‘Tis enough to move the Grace down the shore to the cove, though not if there are any trials or terribulations. But our first assault is likely to be enough, I judge, if the glass palace holds no dangerous secrets that could bar our way – or spill our blood. If there be complications, then some of us will surely escape to carry word and warning; together with the Grace’s cannon, they should carry the day. And if none of us come out of the palace alive – if I do not come out of there alive – then I find I care not what comes of the rest of them here with my ship. Ian says we should simply bring the Grace with all hands aboard, for a frontal assault on the beach; I hope it will not be necessary to risk the ship in any but the uttermost need.
And so with sharpened swords and axes, charged locks, loaded rifles and pistols, we will fill the ship’s boat with men. We determined to row down the coastline to the strand, rather than slog through the mangroves; though we will land on the near side of the wall rather than the palace side; I do not wish to creep with ten sea-legged tars through that thin underbrush, all within sight of the palace. For myself and a few of the lads I brought aboard from my own village – Moran and McTeigue, both kin, McTeigue my own mother’s brother’s son – I know we have hunted ‘cross heath and over moor, through forest and stream and bog, and sure we could move without any more sound than an Irish deer in a spring meadow, once we stiffened our knees on land once more. But the others? Burke could not be silent if he were three days dead, and I doubt rotting in his grave would improve his smell, either, which would reveal his presence and ours as readily as the clanking of his damned manacles. Perhaps I should not bring him along. But that mad bastard of an Englishman is the bloodiest savage I have ever seen in a fight, and we do not know what we may face. Perhaps the very stones will rise up. Maybe the grounds are sown with dragon’s teeth, as Jason and his Argonauts faced, soldiers springing from the earth itself. We will have need of Burke and his swinging chains. And should he take a mortal hurt in the fight, well.
I will wish ill on no man. I do hope to take the palace without shot fired or blood spilled.
We go now. Gods be with their beloved Gaelic rogues.
O, blessed be the angels of Ireland that look over their proud, bonny sons, even in this other world! Christ and Dagda, blessed St. Brendan and Patrick, too: why can you not draw back that curtain of fear that lays over all struggles of blood and iron, that terror that has put more men in the ground than any plague, any famine, any tyrant in the annals of history? Is bravery not enough? Strength, celerity, skill with arms? Must we overcome the madness of fear, as well?
Ah, I know very well whence came the cause of this hurly-burly I have just waded through: ’tis just that my men are not soldiers. They are pirates. And pirates fight with boiling blood and roaring curses, the hack and slash of the cutlass and the blast of the thrice-charged blunderbuss; we do not know the discipline of Cromwell’s New Model Army, and would spit on it if given the chance. But I would never wish to be faced with the sight of my men charging at me with red eyes and shining swords: ’tis a braw sight, to be sure, even from amongst ’em. But ’tis a mad sight, as well. Gods damn me, what a brou-ha-ha that was.
We rowed through the calm, placid water, like one of O’Flaherty’s bloody fine folk in a pleasure craft on the Thames. We came to the strand, we landed and found the wall; I crossed, leaving the men ready at a word to swarm over and bring wrack and ruin along. I found Lynch, waiting, soaked in sweat but with his powder dry and his hand steady: he had my pistols drawn and primed, both aimed at the palace’s glass walls, where we first saw the sorceress queen. He saw me come, signaled with a tip of one barrel before he leveled his aim once more. I made my way to him, thanked him for his alertness, and asked for his report.
“The palace, Captain,” he said, then cleared his dry throat with a soft rumble. “The Palace is not empty.”