Captain’s Log #5
Date: 25th of June. Dawn.
Location: At anchor in cove. Still afloat.
Conditions: The sun shines, and hope blooms in those golden rays.
We live. I say again: the fairest sight of all is the sun’s rise on a new day, arriving like an unexpected guest who bears good tidings.
The storm broke and fled in the night, though in truth it should have spelled our doom before it did. For our survival this dawn, we must give thanks to the capricious gods, and to my mate and friend, Ian O’Gallows. (A name he bears half for his father, a Scotch gallowglass, a mercenary who came to Ireland to fill his pouch with gold fighting in our wars, and instead found himself filling the pouch of a comely Irish maid, one of such spirited blood and poetic temperament that she loved the man but never bothered to know his name beyond, “Ah, Love!” The other half-measure of the name O’Gallows is the just reward for Ian’s meritorious service in a lifelong quest to end on that renowned apparatus, made holy by the blood of so many Irish kings. And the shite of an even greater number of English rogues, as Ian says it true.)
The seas found the hole in the Grace’s hull at last. Ian was at the watch and heard a report from the men at the larboard pumps that they could no longer keep pace with the water in the bilge. Ian went below to inspect, and found water pouring in through the wound in our lovely lady’s skin. He went to the carpenter’s closet, near abandoned since McLoughlin’s death on Irish seas, and found a short plank end, a great handful of long nails, and a hammer. He held the plank in place with his feet, his back braced against the deck and muscles straining against the might of the seas, while Roger Desmond nailed the board in place with enough iron to charge a cannon. It was nothing like a proper patch, but it held back the water enough to let the pumps keep us afloat.
Now with the dawn we are at last headed ashore. I will take Lynch and explore on foot to the south, and O’Flaherty and Carter will head north. We seek a strand where we can beach the ship without fear of intrusion. We seek also for civilization, and knowledge of our whereabouts – but always, the ship’s health comes first.
I have returned. I do not know what is uppermost in my mind, in my heart: the dread I feel, or the wonder. For the nonce, it is perplexity, bewilderment, and confustication. WHERE THE BLOODY HELL ARE WE?
We took the boat to the shore, found a bare patch between trees – and such strange trees! Standing aloft on roots like a cathedral’s buttresses, growing right from the sea, with salt crystals visible on their tangled roots. O’Flaherty calls them mangroves. He was transported to the Indies where he turned pirate before returning to Ireland, so I take his word on matters of local knowledge now. Though I don’t know why: wherever we are, it is not the sugar plantations of the Caribbean. I do not believe O’Flaherty has ever seen these shores any more than I have. Nonetheless, we tied the boat to one and spent some minutes regaining our land legs, learning the uncertainty of the land around these mangrove trees, which is softer even than a peat bog, though perhaps not quite as odoriferous, and then we were off.
Lynch and I slogged through mangrove bog for a mile or so before the ground came solid to our step. We knew to use the mud to keep off the insects, or we would have lost more blood to them than we ever have to the English. But the stench was most unpleasant, as was the heat, even in the trees’ shade.
Not half a mile after the bog turned to good earth and the mangroves made way for proper trees, we came to a wall. I cannot say how that sight heartened me: we were not lost, we were not doomed to wander in the wilderness until my ship sank and we starved for our ignorance. A wall meant men, and with men we had a fighting chance. That’s all an Irishman needs.
The wall was six feet high, with broken glass embedded in the top. A fine piece of masonry, too, as good as any cathedral wall I have seen. The surface was covered with a plaster smooth as a shaved and sanded plank, the extent slightly curved but the top straight and level as the horizon. But trees grew within a pace of it, so its defensive value was somewhat less than its craftsmanship. Lynch scurried over it with no more difficulty than he had climbing the rigging, and though my days as a mast-monkey were far behind me, still I had not much more trouble. The woods continued on the other side for a dozen paces, and then cleared. We paused at the edge to take stock.
That’s when we saw the house.
House? Fah. ‘Tis a palace the likes of which no man has ever laid eyes on, I warrant.
There were brief gardens with plants unknown to me or Lynch; puffed shapes like immense dent-de-lion gone to seed, and tall trees with nary a branch on slender trunks but for a crown of great leaves, bright green and serrate, bursting out of the top, many times the height of a man – they might make fine masts, perhaps, though they may be too flexible. Then a terrace of some sort, with a columned portico or promenade – Christ and Dagda, I have not the words for it. I have never seen architecture like it.
It was the size of a vast cathedral, a king’s palace: thirty or forty feet high, an hundred feet across – nay, more. It lacked ornament: not a single piece of statuary, no mural nor frieze, not even a curved band of stone. I’d call it a Puritan’s proclivities that stripped it bare, knowing that humorless race landed on the New World’s shores and live there still, but no: ’twas the edifice itself that served as decoration, that gloried the eye and honored the wizard who built it.
The walls shimmered and shone as we approached cautiously through the gardens. I noticed there were no crops, no edibles, and surmised we must be on the far side from the kitchens. I told Lynch through signs to ‘ware guards on the parapets, but we saw not a soul. As we drew closer, the risen sun gleamed from the walls, which had a strange appearance: smoother even than the wall we had crossed, yet rippled, and the sunlight reflected from the surface. I surmised they were solid steel, as I have seen such metal forged so that light ripples on its surface like that of a pond teeming with fish and fragments of wind. This wall curved, as well, and I wondered if the people dwelling here could not lay a straight line.
But then before our eyes, the wall changed. What I had taken for ripples of forged steel was in truth a curtain, a curtain than now drew away, moved by no hand. Why did this curtain wall gleam in the sun, you ask?
Because the curtain was inside of a wall made of glass.
I could not fathom it, at first. ‘Twas Lynch, crouched beside me, whispering, “Glass! ‘Tis made of glass!” that set the truth in my ‘mazed mind. I know not how to imagine a wall made of glass, without flaw, without blemish, without frame, ten feet high and a hundred feet wide, without saying that it must be magic. This was a sorceror’s palace, I thought then.
And then, within the glass – though the eye did not pause for an instant at its surface, clear as the mountain air – we saw the master of this palace, and I corrected myself: this was the palace of a sorceress. Her robe – silk, I thought, though I have never seen it on a person, only on a bolt liberated from an English trader; sure it was not the rough-dyed homespun I have seen on most colleens at home – that robe revealed more of her curves than it concealed, and lovely curves they were, indeed. I glanced at Lynch to be sure he was not entranced or inflamed by this first sight of a woman in nigh three months, but he was glancing at me to determine the same, and so we looked back at the marvels before us.
She stood at the window for a moment, staring out at the sun on the water, a delicate half-smile on her face – a face as lovely as the rest of her, a face to bring out the poet in any Irishman – and then she turned and walked across a wide room, a reception hall, perhaps, though I saw no table large enough to seat a proper company of men. There were low couches and chairs, rich carpets; the floors were of some pale stone, and as smooth as the glass wall I saw them through.
The sorceress went to a wall of cabinets, and produced a miracle. She grasped a handle, pulled the cabinet open – and light shone forth from within, brighter than any lantern I have seen! Within the cabinet, and affixed to the inside of the door, there were what appeared to be foodstuffs, though the room was so wide that I could not make out all the details; too, I was dazzled by that light: surely she did not keep a candle burning inside a closed cabinet! But then, no candle ever shone like that.
She removed a bottle of some kind, and a smaller handful. Another cabinet, which I could not see into, and then she poured, with her back to us. She turned and we saw she was drinking a golden fluid from a clear glass cup; in her hand she held something that might be fruit, though I did not know its shape. It looked to me like a golden sausage. But I watched her peel it and eat it raw, so a fruit it must have been.
But what can I know of this? Perhaps she devoured the severed finger of a demon before my eyes. Or perhaps it was . . . some other part.
She put down the glass of golden nectar and took up a strange object: only just larger than her hand, slim and long and flat, covered in knobbly protrusions. She waved it at the wall, and then I knew it was her sorceress’s wand, for the wall opened, of its own accord, revealing a great mirror in a black frame. She waved the wand again, and the mirror showed images – but not images, for they moved. They moved! It was a window of some kind, revealing not the other side of the palace’s grounds, but showing other places and people, like a scrying pool or some such wizardry. As Lynch and I watched, it changed a dozen times, revealing a man’s face, then three people gathered around a strange object I did not know, then a map with strange names written on it – alas, she waved her wand and the map disappeared before I could discern any useful details; but I will swear the words were in a script I recognized, even if I could not see what words they spelled out. Then it was a woman with a metal rod pressed to her wide open mouth – was she singing? – and then a jeweled pendant, surrounded by words, like the illuminated page of a monk’s manuscript. I made out the number 29.99, before the mirror’s magic showed two faces – no, it was one face, but shown twice, side-by-side. But perhaps it was not the same face, for the one on the left was older, more blemished than the right side face. Mother and daughter, perhaps?
The sorceress stepped closer to the mirror then, and gazed at it; it was now that she ate her golden sausage-fruit and drank her golden nectar. She dropped the peel – the skin? – and the empty glass onto a wide shelf beside the cabinets full of light, and then took up her wand again and waved it at the wall of glass. And the wall opened.
Two doors, framed in some strange, smooth white stone but made of glass, swung wide without a hand to move them. Lynch and I froze, knowing the slightest movement might draw the sorceress’s attention to us. I know his fondest wish now was the same as mine: we had seen enough, and now we wanted nothing but her departure, so that we could return to the safety of our ship and our friends. But she did not leave: she came out onto the terrace, no more than thirty feet from where we crouched behind shrubbery. Then she took off her robe.
I will not speak of what I saw then; it would be ungallant. Suffice to say that I am not innocent of women, that I have known the fond caresses of more than a few generous and loving lasses; but never had I hoped to see so much bared flesh outside of a bed. What garment she did wear was little more than paint on her skin; certainly it hid no more from our sight than it did from the gods.
She walked across the terrace, away from us – I can close my eyes and see every single step, so closely did I observe her every swaying, undulating movement – and then dove into a pond that we had not noticed hitherto. She swam – better than any man I have ever seen, and more than a few fish, as well – across and back, across and back, a score of times. Then she emerged once more, taking up a small blanket to dry herself, an operation I observed just as carefully, especially when she bent to rub the blanket down her smooth leg – but I blush to continue.
She went inside, closing the glass doors, this time by hand. She disappeared through a doorway, granting Lynch’s and my wish of minutes before – though I confess my wish had become somewhat different by that point.
When we spoke, when we had recovered our wits enough to whisper, Lynch asked, “Is she a temptress demon, Captain? A succubus?”
I shook my head, but not because I knew him to be wrong. “She may be. Though I think this land too fair to be infernal. Look you.” I pointed to the ocean, visible to our left; before the glass palace was the perfect cove, ideal for our purposes. A wide, flat expanse of white sand that we could draw the ship upon, a spit of land dense with trees and shrubs to hide us from the view of passing ships, should such exist in this strange place (We have seen none). Stout trees to anchor lines for drawing the Grace out of the water, and lashing her safe against the tide’s caprices. And overlooking all, this glass palace, with a pond of clear water to drink and magical cabinets full of food, howsoever strange.
“Hell would not have such perfection laid before us,” I told Lynch. “Not without a legion of demons, armed and belligerent, to keep us from it.”
No, I had realized, as we watched the beautiful sorceress emerge from her magical, impossible palace, where we were and what we were seeing. “She is no devil,” I told Lynch. “She is a Faerie Queen.
“We are Underhill, in the Land of the Fae.”