“Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more.”
It came to be known that the keys for the beast-wagon lay in the miscellany of odds and ends we had taken from the Dominicans’ pockets before locking them in; we identified the correct ring, from among several small rings of tiny-seeming keys, with Shluxer’s guidance. Then I must needs ask for volunteers, with myself as first example – though all gods in heaven and earth know that I would rather dive into a whale’s mouth from the crow’s nest than ride on that thing. But I cannot ask my men to do a thing the which I would not do; if not for honor’s sake, then simply because they would refuse to do it, with mine own example as sufficient justification. But with myself standing tall, and Shluxer smirking at us, soon enough Kelly stepped forward, with only a slight stagger to reveal the source of his courage; and then my good friend Ian took a surer step to join him. Lynch tried to step up, but I ordered the youth back into line. Such heart in a small and youthful chest shamed two more men into taking the step, Lochlan O’Neill and my cousin, Owen MacTeigue. I chose O’Neill, as he is a fast friend of Donal Carter and could sway the man to listen to reason; also I trusted MacTeigue to stay behind and supervise the fortifications of the Palace should all this go for naught.
Kelly offered to sit on the rear of the wagon, where a footman might ride if it were the carriage it somewhat resembled, but Shluxer refused him and demanded we all crawl inside, after he used the key to open the – doors, I suppose they are, though damned if they don’t more resemble a bird’s wings, or the fins of a fish.
Perhaps this thing is fashioned from the skeleton of some fantastic beast?
Any road, Shluxer and I were trying to coax Kelly into the sternward bench when there was a crash of glass; on the port side of the beast, Ian O’Gallows was knocking out the last few fragments from the sternward fin-door with the butt of his pistol. I feared for a moment that this attack would anger the beast – and my men stepped back with me, all eyes on O’Gallows – but Shluxer cursed and said he would “roll down the fucking windows.” Which made no sense as one cannot roll glass. While we discussed it, however, Kelly found a mount to his liking: he stood on the metal edge below the bench, with one hand grasping the open door-fin-wing, and stabbed his dagger through the – the scalp? The back? The thin metal (or perhaps bone) plate atop the beast, whichever side of the thing one calls it. It gave him a fine hold, and he declared himself ready to weigh anchor. Shluxer yelled and swore again, but I and my men took heart: this further injury once more provoked no response at all from the beast. Perhaps it was not to be feared.
We all took our places, Ian behind Shluxer on the port side and Kelly hanging off the beast’s starboard side behind me, with O’Neill white-faced between the two sternward stalwarts. I took the forward bench beside Shluxer, who sat behind a wheel, though I know not how that could steer the beast. He said, “All right, hold on to your butts,” (at which saying we all took hold of our pistols) and then applied the key; now we heard the beast roar and growl. Mysteriously, we also heard a blast of music, but Shluxer poked the beast in the mystically-engraved panel facing us, and it stopped. Once Shluxer coaxed Kelly back onto the thing’s flank, he having leapt off and drawn his iron at the sound of the thing’s roaring, my new navigator plied his hands and feet in an arcane manner, and – we were off!
It was, at first, simply a wonder. Shluxer somehow made the glass window beside me vanish, and then, as we moved farther away from the Glass Palace at a speed faster than a grown man’s trot, I could feel the wind, though only from my side. Straight ahead I watched the ground move, the trees coming closer, and yet it seemed unreal – the motion too smooth, and without a direct wind in my face coming from the forward quarter, it felt wrong to me.
Then we reached the road – we had been moving along the track from the Palace, which was lengthy and narrow; this that lay ahead was a smooth-paved road four times the width, at least – and turned to starboard, and suddenly we were moving faster than I have ever moved before on this Earth, faster than a horse at the gallop, faster than ever the fleetest ship raced before the wind and tide. At first I felt near a swoon – a sensation increased, along with my terror, when I saw another beast-wagon apparently aimed directly at us and charging, before it missed us just to our port side, as though we were jousters in the lists. It was followed by another beast-wagon, and another, and another. The road turned to the left, and then the right; the beast-wagon barely slowed, and with each turn, I and my men drifted to the side, like green sailors in their first swell, with cries and murmurs of alarm. It was the most frightful experience of my life, saving only, perhaps, the encounters with Hobbes and the Sea-Cat.
Then Ian started laughing.
I looked back at him, incredulous; it was in my mind that he had lost his sanity and was in hysterics. But no, he met my gaze and I saw that he was himself. He had thrust his head out through the porthole in the door-wing where he had broken the glass pane, and the wind of his passing was tearing through his hair and blowing out the collar of his shirt. “Try it, Nate!” he shouted to me, grinning like a child on Christmas morning – though he did flinch away from the oncoming beast-wagons, which trumpeted their strange cries at him, or perhaps at our beast. Shluxer cursed and steered us farther to starboard, giving Ian room away from the jousting wagons. Then I heard a whoop from Kelly on the other side, but his head was above the top of the opening he stood in and could not be seen. I glanced at O’Neill, and saw that he was not amused: his gaze was glassy, his mouth open and slack, his skin pallid and rapidly becoming green; I recalled that O’Neill was one of those who struggled with sea-sickness, and I surmised that the beast-wagon’s strange motion was too much for him. It certainly put a flutter in my own gut, though the like didn’t affect me at sea, but this thing jerked from side to side far more rapidly than any ship, and the movement forward pressed us back into our seats before the long turns pulled us to the outward side, and it was all very strange. I clapped O’Neill on the knee, and he met my gaze, swallowing painfully, beads of sweat on his brow. “Will ye live?” I asked him.
He started to nod, then closed his eyes and shivered. “Aye.”
I turned to Shluxer. “How much longer?” I had to repeat the question, as his attention was fixed on Kelly and Ian; Ian was now seated in the porthole, his entire trunk outside the beast-wagon. He and Kelly were shouting back and forth and in unison, no words, just cries of pure joy.
“Shouldn’t that be ‘Yo-ho-ho?'” Shluxer muttered.
I said his name again, and he glanced at me.
“Oh, right – uh, how much longer? I dunno – five minutes if they haven’t left this road. Maybe less.”
I nodded and then clapped O’Neill on the knee again. “Ye’ll live, man. If ye have to purge, do it towards Kelly.” Then I put my head out the window, as well, to see what all the fuss was about.
The moment I felt the wind on my face, coming from what my eyes and mind told me was the proper direction, rather than blowing from a quarter-turn to the side, then the sensation of strangeness disappeared. My gut subsided its churning, the clench of my jaw eased; suddenly it was as if we were sailing the swiftest ship across calm waters, or riding the fleetest horse with the smoothest gait – I know not how to describe it! Our speed was magnificent, but there was no sense of the motion, none of the up-and-down or back-to-front jerking that accompanied any other means of such speed, whether it be a horse’s hoofbeats or a team pulling a wagon or a ship going over waves and swells. I have never felt anything like it. I presume this is what the birds feel when they spread their wings and glide through the air. It was glorious. Soon all three of us, Ian, Kelly, and myself, were crying out with joy as we leaned out of the beast-wagon and waved our hands in the wind.
But then, as I was seated on my own porthole and turned towards Ian to share a grin, Kelly shouted “Captain!” I glanced to him, and he nodded to the starboard bow quarter and shouted, “‘Tis them, sir.” I turned quickly and spotted my wayward bully boys immediately: there were no other people on this road – reasonable, considering the speed and frequency of beast-wagons on it! These folk must have separate roads for people to walk or ride more ordinary steeds. Their clothing, too, stood out clearly against the dull green mangroves and other trees to either side of us. They had not yet noticed us as different from any other beast-wagon.
I ducked back into the beast-wagon and marked the target for Shluxer, who muttered, “No shit, Sherlock.” I swear, the man speaks an English almost incomprehensible to me. But he turned and stopped, all of a sudden, just as we passed them, bringing us to a dead halt not twenty feet from the four runaways. Remarkable.
Kelly was already off the wagon and facing them, weapons in hands. I opened the portal – after Shluxer pointed out the handle to me – and stood by him; behind his great frame, O’Neill crawled from the beast’s guts and heaved up his own. Ian, his face still red and grinning from the wind, leapt to the top of the wagon and struck a stance, fists on hips. He cried, “What ho, me hearties!”
I looked at my men with somewhat less joy. Of the four, Moran looked the most abashed, and would not meet my gaze. Carter simply stood and looked at us with both equanimity and a certain amount of wonder at the means of our arrival; Burke sneered and smirked; and O’Flaherty clenched his jaw with anger. I strode slowly up to them, looking from one face to the next.
“Out for a wee stroll, are we?” I asked sardonically.
“Aye,” O’Flaherty spat back. “Out to correct that one’s failure,” he said, pointing a thumb at O’Gallows. Ian’s good humor ended instantly, and he leapt down from the beast-wagon and marched toward O’Flaherty with grim intent, but I waved him back.
“You think the provisions he gathered for us insufficient?”
O’Flaherty, who had been sneering a challenge at Ian, now looked back to me. “Aye, o’ course t’were insufficient, man. Ye canna expect a pirate crew to live without spirits. Especially not in the midst of all this madness we go through in this place where you brought us, Captain.” He stepped closer. “And don’t try to foist it off on me, again. Ye put on a nice bit o’ theater for the men, but ye canna have it both ways. If ye be the captain, then the responsibility for our mishaps be yours. And ye knows it.”
I nodded, for he was in the right. “Aye, I’ve made many mistakes, o’ course. Any man in command will do the same. What matter, though, is that I must recognize my mistakes, and ensure that more and poorer choices do not worsen our situation beyond repair – as this little excursion of yours would do. What in the name of all the hells were you thinking, Sean?” I shouted, throwing my hands up in exasperation.
Never one to back down, O’Flaherty bellowed right back. “Your man there said t’were no guards! The boys need a bit o’ cheer, and we mean to get it for them.”
“You daft fool,” spake I, with perhaps less diplomacy than the circumstances asked, “I sent Ian off with mere trinkets, and he traded them for a month’s provisions. Did ye think we couldn’t do the same twice, only this time with rum as the goal? What, do ye not remember the remaining wealth in the Palace we took? – Aye, took under my command?”
O’Flaherty laughed, without mirth. “Trade? We’re not merchants, Nate. We be pirates. We take what we want.” Carter and Burke both nodded at this, and Moran looked as though he wanted to.
I laughed back. “Pirates, Sean? Ye be pirates?” I stepped up and pressed my chest to his. “Then where be your ship?” I shouted in his face. He stepped back then, but I stepped with him. “You know where. She be on the beach. On her side in the sand, wi’ a great hole blown in her flank. You know – you all know,” I said, turning to include the other three with a look and a gesture, “you know that I have no compunction against taking what I desire. The world owes me that, as it owes each of you. Aye?” They nodded again, and from behind me, Ian growled, “Aye, it bloody well does.”
I turned back to O’Flaherty. I stopped shouting; we needed to remove the spark from this discussion, not throw it into the powder keg. “But we need the ship. We need the Grace, Sean – need her in the water and catching the wind. Aye, of course I took note when Ian said there were no guards at the Piggly-Wiggly, but think ye we have no enemies hereabouts? If this be a colony, there will be troops here, somewhere; if it be a sovereign nation, they will have militia. Either way, your little raid would bring them down on us. Now, if we could escape to sea in our fair ship, then I would lead the way, and carry a cask of rum myself! I planned to do just that. But not –” and here I shouted once more, as I felt this point deserving of special emphasis: “NOT UNTIL WE HAVE OUR SHIP BACK!”
O’Flaherty and I glared at each other in silence. I knew what he wanted: he wanted to name me coward, shame me with my unwillingness to take this risk when such an easy prize beckoned. But he knew that if he said it, I would draw arms to defend my honor – and he would lose against me, with pistol or with blade, and he knew that, too. So we waited, and I watched him swallow the words he wanted to say to me then. They looked bitter.
Then another voice broke into the tableau we had made: “Hey!” We all turned and looked: it was Shluxer, standing with his arms crossed, his face pale and nervous. “If you dudes, you know, want some booze or something, you know, I can get it for you.”
I raised one eyebrow and asked what we all wondered: “What is booze?”
He rolled his eyes. “You know, booze. Liquor, beer, whiskey, wine, shit like that.” He shrugged. “I can get other shit, too, if you want to get really fucked up. But booze, that’s easy.”
“How much?” O’Flaherty asked, even as I asked, “What risks will there be?” We glared at each other some more.
“As much as you want. No trouble – I got this shit covered, yo.”
I looked the question at O’Flaherty, and after a moment, he nodded. I turned back to Shluxer and said, “Yo-ho-ho.”
So it went: Ian accompanied Shluxer in the beast-wagon, and the rest of us marched back to the Palace, in silence but for some brief muttering between O’Flaherty and Burke, and Burke and Moran, and then a low conversation between Carter and O’Neill, once O’Neill recovered from his illness – which largely came the moment he found he would not have to mount the wagon once more. I was chagrined to see that Carter did much of the talking, but if I walked closer, they turned to silence until I moved away. Perhaps I should not have brought O’Neill.
I am sure this is not the last trouble these four will cause me, but I have no idea how to prevent them.
The situation is fast becoming dire.