Log #5: The Glass Palace

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.”

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Log #4: The Chase, Part II

Captain’s Log #4

Date: 24th of June, 1678. Evening, or so: twilight hidden by storm clouds.

Location: Unknown

Conditions: Thunder and Lightning. Very very frightening. Wind and waves high, but ebbing.

 

For two months, Hobbes’s ship never left us. We made what repairs we could, but our mainmast yard was damaged beyond repair by chainshot, and we had no way to replace it. Perhaps something could have been found, but McLoughlin, our carpenter, had been killed by a musket-ball, and no one else had any particular skill at woodcraft. We tried to hoist more sails, to lighten our load, to make better use of the wind – but all was for naught. We sailed dark in the night and took unexpected turns in the blackness; but somehow, whenever we tried such tactics, the sun would rise and show sails behind us, sometimes far away, but always visible. And they always gave chase, eventually closing what gap we had opened, never coming close enough to enter battle.

I do not believe I truly slept for those two months. I cannot even be sure it was two months; I missed days in this log, and no man aboard kept his own calendar. Even Vaughn, the surgeon and an educated man, stayed below with his books, as ever; the sailing of the ship means no more to him than the pulling of a plow concerns a field mouse: occasionally he is disturbed by it. The passing of time follows that same path for him, unnoticed and unmourned. Perhaps he has the right of it.

But for two months, the wind never slackened or changed and no storms came; there was enough rain and enough fishing to keep us alive, but we saw no other sails and never lost sight of the Sea-Cat. It was enough to drive us all mad, the months of waiting, imagining our fate yet hoping for a reprieve – a reprieve that did not need to be as miraculous as the one I had hoped for as a lad, awaiting my mother’s return: all we needed now was for Hobbes to give up the chase. Who were we? One Irish pirate vessel, perhaps with some small repute due our success in the English shipping lanes, but no Henry Morgan, no Francis Drake. Why did he not give up?

Someday I will have Hobbes at my mercy. I will ask him then.

It may have been madness that brought us so close to our doom, at the end. Certain if it was not madness, ’twas folly. I took ill, of course, for no man can stay upright under that strain for that long. When I did, ’twas left to my mate, Ian O’Gallows, to carry out my wishes. But he found himself pressed on two sides by the ship’s quartermaster, Sean O’Flaherty, and the bosun, Edmund Burke, a brute of an Englishman allowed aboard my ship only for the sake of O’Flaherty’s patronage, and the need to keep peace between myself and the man elected by my crew to be my equal in all things but battle. O’Flaherty chafed under the fact that we were on the eve of battle every hour of two months, and thus my word was law throughout; so when I lay insensate in my cabin, he seized his moment. With Burke at his side, they overruled Ian and commanded the men themselves. Perhaps Ian allowed it to happen, and if so, I cannot fault him; though their course was folly, it was a possibility that called to us all for those months, and may have become inevitable even had I stayed at the helm to the bitter end.

They slowed the ship and prepared for battle.

I regained myself in the night, and staggered out of my cabin to see what I had transpired during my incapacity. O’Flaherty had command, with Duffy at the helm; it was a cloudy night, and we were running silent and dark, so that I almost stumbled over them in the darkness as I moved blearily toward the dim light of the hooded lantern standing at O’Flaherty’s feet. They greeted me, somewhat warily, I think now, though I saw nothing amiss at the time. O’Flaherty told me how long I had been below – the better part of two days – and our approximate position, though we had sailed off the edge of our charts more than a month ago, and were navigating mostly by legend and hearsay about the length of a cruise from Ireland to the English colonies of the New World, where so many Irishmen suffered in chains after Devil Cromwell came to our shores. They assumed we were somewhere east of the Carolinas, but did not know how far away from the shore – perhaps as much as a thousand miles. They thought we might be close to the island called Baramundi, or perhaps it was Bermuda – they could not recall the name.

I began to examine what I could discern of the distribution of our sails, and grew alarmed as I realized that sails had been reefed: my ship had been slowed. It was then that the most peculiar sight ever to light my eyes came to pass. I realized that the rigging was growing far easier to discern; that there was, in fact, light in the darkness. It was a blue light, unlike any illumination I had heretofore experienced, and as I rubbed my eyes, trying to clear away any lingering phantoms of sleep, I found that the hair on my arms, and on my neck, was standing erect. Then I knew what it was, this light, from many stories told by old sea-dogs around tavern tables: it was the fire of St. Elmo, seen by one mariner in a thousand but boasted of by every man jack who sails the sea.

Imagine my wonder as I observed my ship, every inch of her glowing like a falling star, growing bright enough to see, and then to read by. It was a sublime beauty, a moment out of time: a waking dream that brought joy to my heart, a heart which had felt no goodness for weeks, aa heart which was filled with nothing but a rising dread and falling hopes.

And then imagine my horror as I turned to look at O’Flaherty and Duffy behind me, and saw the same eldritch fire crawling over the sails and lines and rails of the Sea-Cat, the scourged lady at her bow almost near enough to spit on. “To arms!” I cried. “To arms, and ‘ware boarders! All men on deck!”

O’Flaherty attempted to forestall me, but it was too late. My awaking at the wrong moment, my awareness of the enemy ship at the same moment, thanks to a mysterious wonder of the sea – it had to have been fate, or the caprice of the gods, that saw fit to ruin the plans of O’Flaherty. I do not know if I should regret it.

For the moment my voice was raised, the hatch burst open and the men came boiling out, wide awake, armed to the teeth and ready to kill Englishmen. For indeed, O’Flaherty and Burke had intended to bring our pursuers to the fray, and, hoping surprise would balance their greater numbers, had hidden the men belowdecks until Hobbes’s men had grappled and boarded us, thinking our boys foolishly asleep, and thus boarding with false confidence instead of battle-ready wills. Perhaps it would have worked, if the timing had come together properly.

But now it was ruined. For the men rushed above yelling, and the English spotted us and veered off our stern just long enough to fire on us with grape shot and muskets. My men went down like mown hay before the scythe. I fell, as well, wounded in the arm and lightly across my scalp, a minor gash that bled more than it harmed, though it was enough to stun me for a moment as my blood and the blood of my men pooled on the deck of my ship.

Then the blue fire of St. Elmo flared like lightning, turning as white as moonlight and as brilliant as the sun on the waves. There was a clap of thunder, and the deck reeled beneath us. “Rogue wave!” rose the cry, and perhaps it was. The light turned a color I have never seen, a lurid brilliance tinged with darkness: as if a rainbow bled its life’s blood on our eyes. I heard the screaming of a ban-sidhe rise far off and then fly at us at great speed, arriving with a tumult and crash as of a cannonade. The deck bounced once more, the light flashed, and then all was still. All was silent.

The sun broke the horizon then, and we saw that the ship had turned, and the sun was rising before us, a line of dark storm clouds just above her bright face, like the angry brows of a goddess scorned. The seas were calmed, but for the three-foot chop; no sign of the rogue wave that had tossed us moments before.

And no sign of the Devil’s Lash. The cry went up as we realized, and we rushed from rail to rail, like children following a soldier’s parade through town. But there was nothing, no ship, no sails in sight. There was a brief cheer, quickly lost in confusion; and then I set men to tasks, seeing to the wounded and the dead, turning the ship about to sail due west and seek landfall and safety from the coming storm. It was not an hour before we spied land ahead, and a matter of half a day before we could make out the trees along the shore. So much for O’Flaherty’s navigation. Perhaps it was Duffy’s, but he fell in the fusillade, so I will not speak ill of the dead.

Thus came we here. The storm is upon us now, and my strength flags again, my eyes heavy, my hand numb and shaking on the quill. I must rest. Perhaps I will wake in Hell. Perhaps I am there now.

But if I am in Hell, where is the Devil’s Lash?

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Captain’s Log #3: The Chase

Captain’s Log #3

Date: 24th of June, 1678. Noon.

Location: Unknown

Conditions: Anchored and slowly sinking in the storm. But alone.

Inspection complete, so much as possible in storm. Leak worsening, water coming over the rail with every fifth wave. Meal of rotting biscuit and raw fish. Most eager to make landfall, but bloody storm continues.

 

Returning to my narrative.

Thus began the most hellish, gods-cursed time I have known in my eight-and-twenty years. I have known battle, as sailor and as captain; I have been deprived; I have been ill. God’s teeth, I’m Irish, born of an English rapist in the time of Devil Cromwell. I have known suffering before.

But sea battles are short, a matter of hours at most, and frequently the fighting itself a mere pocketful of minutes. ‘Tis the sailing, the tacking, the wearing, the coming about and bearing into the wind, that swallows the sand in the glass. A hurly-burly ashore is measured in heartbeats and footfalls, and quickish ones at that.

Growing up Irish under English tyranny took longer, but ’twas never all bad. I had my mother’s love, and the love of my sept and clan, who forgave me my English blood for the sake of the love they carried for my mother, love which ran hot in their blood and burned deep in their bones. And aye, we went hungry at times, when the English stole our crop or our catch; there was illness, as there ever is; I bore the shame of bowing to English soldiers as they beat and chastised my kin. But there was always revenge to look forward to, with the English. And always, hungry days, sick days, every day, there was music, and ale, and my mother’s laugh, as high and rich as the lark’s call. She acted as chieftain, in those days when the English had ripped out our heritage and broken the lines of battle chiefs and Gaelic kings. She would call the sept together whenever food ran short: first she would plan for the next day, when every man would go to the boats to take what we could from the sea, and every woman and girl would find roots and nuts and watercress; anything we could put in our bellies. Then once the plans were set and everyone knew his task, and we all knew that the morrow would bring some sustenance for us – at least enough to keep a space between belly and backbone – then we would sing and dance, and drink, if there were ale or whiskey to be had. Mad Cousin Diarmuid would even share out his mead, though no one else could taste that foul Northman’s brew without your tongue curdling up in your mouth, poisoned with sweetness. But we’d drink it, right enough, and we’d forget our hunger and our anger and our despair. And my mother would laugh. Our suffering would ease, at least for a while.

But this Hell that I and my men have lived for the last two months: it never stopped. It never went away. That pox-hollowed, malformed, gods-rotted shite-kettle has sailed after us for two months. It never left our sight.

The wind was perfect, the seas and skies calm but for an occasional summer squall that refreshed like a good Irish rain, and kindly topped our water barrels for us. The wind never failed, never changed direction; it blew from the northeast as if it were going home after a battle, and we sailed before it as though the gods called us on.

Surely the devil was giving chase.

That first dawn was the worst. We saw the galleon turn away and give up the chase as night fell on the day of the battle; as darkness overtook us, we were sure the brig would fall off, as well. ‘Twas a hard night, filled with the stink of powder and smoke and the pall of blood, as Surgeon Vaughn wielded the knives and the saws and the hot irons of his trade. Three men succumbed to their wounds that night, and the rest of us felt every inch of our hurts as the fever of battle drew down and left us cold and empty as the grave. I found that I had taken a splinter to the shoulder-blade, but had not known it in the madness of battle; ’twas a simple wound, sewn up ably by young Lynch, who wields a fine needle. ‘Twas the first time I had bled on the decks of the Grace, as we have never been boarded, but the stains of my blood were not the only ones on her planks that day. Those who could, slept, but most sat awake, mending sail or splicing line, hoping that busy hands could stop the screams of Vaughn’s surgery from reaching our ears. It did not work.

And then morning dawned, and our spirits lifted even as the darkness did. There is no more beautiful sight than the sun rising on a new day that you never expected to see.

I bear witness to this: there is no uglier sight than the sails of your enemy seen in that same dawn’s rosy glow.

That whore’s bastard did not fall off with darkness, and he hadn’t given up in the night. He had followed us, without burning a single lamp, never changing his course. We had slowed some, sure that we were alone; I was glad now that I had not given the order to reef the sails so we could tend to our wounded men and ship. The gods’ mercy had stayed my command, and so we sailed through the night, and lived.

He was close enough to fire, had he bow chasers, but he did not; instead he had a figurehead that could be made out clearly in the bright dawn light, without a glass. And that statue put more fear into us than any cannon would have. No cry went up when the sun’s rays revealed that ship, a mere three hundred yards away; we all saw it about the same time, the only signal needed a pointed finger and a growing silence that called out louder than any bosun’s roar. And as we all looked out on it, our eyes, sad and reddened with smoke and exhaustion, all drew to the figurehead: it was the shape of a beautiful woman, bare-breasted, with her hands raised over her head; on her face was a look of anguish, and across her sides and hips were the marks of a whip, red stripes painted and carved into the wood, where her skin was cruelly torn.

We knew of that figurehead, as every Irish rover did. A few whispered to those whose eyesight was too blurred with age or injury or lack of sleep: “‘Tis the Lash! The Devil’s Lash!”

Even among the English, there is but one captain cruel enough to adorn his very ship with the marks of his favorite device. The man christened with not one, but two of the Devil’s own names: Captain Nicholas Hobbes.

I ask you, how can that be? Did his mother – if he had one, if he was not spawned from a blood pool under a headsman’s block – did she never hear the boys down the lane damning each other to Old Hob for a bloody nose or a splash into a puddle? Did no carriage driver threaten the wrath of Splitfoot Nick on a slug-paced oxcart blocking the road? Did she not think of the man her son would become if she added Nick to the nigh-curst surname she already had fitted out for the bawling babe? Why not just call him Lucifer’s Spawn Hobbes and call it a day? If you’re bound and determined to do aught you shouldn’t, then be sure you do it with a whole heart and not a half-measure, as my mother taught me. Mayhap Fucking Bastard Hobbes would suit the man better, at that.

Any road, it was he: Captain Nicholas Hobbes of the Sea-Cat. Better known as the Devil’s Lash, when not in polite company – nor in society impolite enough to curse him as he deserves. He is perhaps the most feared and most reviled privateer captain who sails under English colors; certainly he is the most feared and hated on this ship of mine. His tenacity is legendary – and not exaggerated, I assure you – and matched only by his cruelty. It is said that every man aboard was pressed into service by Hobbes himself, and his equally heinous mates Stuart and Sinclair – one the first mate and one the bosun, but the two so alike and both such brutes that no one knows which is which, nor who is who. Sailor’s lore is sure only that those two savages are the only ones who would willingly sail on that ship, even when this profession of ours includes the foulest, basest dregs of humanity as can be dredged from under the tables in the stinking hells and poxy brothels in the most benighted ports on this green and glowing Earth.

Well. The sun rose, the ship was spotted and named for what she was, the vessel of Hellspawn. The order was given to lower all sails once more and crowd the canvas, and we pulled away from the Sea-Cat. But we did not lose Hobbes. He never fell below the horizon, and no fortunate fog bank arose; of course there was no land to hide us from his sight, or even to make landfall and disperse, leaving our ship but saving our lives. There was nothing but ocean ahead, and the Sea-Cat and her whipped lady behind, all that day.

And the next day. And the next.

When I was nine years old, I spent two weeks with my uncle Seamus while my mother traveled to Dublin to bear witness between a family of our clan, the O’Learys of Knocknagroagh, and the Englishmen who had despoiled their land and robbed them of their meager possessions. Not a day passed after her departure before I got it into my head that I could, and should, use our bull, King Henry (My mother named all our animals after Englishmen. She found them to be fitting appellations.) as my steed as I reenacted the exploits of Finn MacCool. Suffice it to say that King Henry, while he seemed at first amenable to taking on the role, eventually objected strenuously to my direction. He broke the fence of his paddock, shattered the chicken coop, trampled half a dozen of our chickens and my mother’s favorite cat, Guinevere. He also broke my leg, which was certainly the least important bit of destruction, as he also broke his own, and Uncle Seamus was finally forced to kill the sad beast. As I was lamed and, at first, unconscious, Uncle Seamus could not thrash me properly for the deed when his blood was still high; and so he determined a course that would cause me far more torment: he declared that my punishment would wait until my mother returned home and learned of what I had done.

Those two weeks, which stretched almost to three as my mother was delayed in Dublin, had been the longest of my life. Trapped indoors by my broken leg, denied any pastime apart from meditation on my crime and my impending doom, by the end I had concocted such torments that I nearly swooned with terror when my mother came into the room, having been informed by Seamus that I had somewhat to tell her. Perhaps she knew that I would have done myself more misery than she could inflict, and so she did not have me go out to the yard and eat the mouldering remains of King Henry’s dungheap, nor did she coat me in chicken offal and set her three remaining cats on me, two of the gentler thoughts I had crafted in her absence.

No: she took me to meet my father.

But that is a tale for another day; I lack the strength to set my pen to the deeds of a second English bastard. All I will say is that those three weeks of waiting, imagining what my mother would do to me but always hoping for some miraculous reprieve, were the worst agony I had known. Until Nicholas Hobbes chased my ship across the breadth of the Atlantic Ocean.

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Captain’s Log #2: The Trap

Captain’s Log #2

Date: 24th of June, 1678. Dawn.

Location: Unknown

Conditions: Storm, high wind and waves. Anchored in unknown bay.

We are at anchor, riding out the storm that chased us into the shore. The land holds no hints to our position, there is naught in sight but trees. The wind is strong enough to tear off the canvas like whore’s smallclothes, were the sails not reefed; the waves lap the rails and surge ever higher. Eight men needed to work the pumps, and I fear they may not suffice.

I was fool enough to mutter somewhat about Hell and our position, in the presence of the men. They are terrified now, hunched below decks like damned souls on Charon’s galley, crying out as if they feel the flames already with every lightning flash and thunder clap. O’Flaherty has tried to calm them, but to no avail; I think Burke may be riling them up and laughing behind his hand.

But perhaps it is neither Burke nor my tongue’s slip that has put infernal thoughts into the men; after all, they crew a ship for a man named Damnation, and we were pursued across the ocean by the one they call the Devil’s Lash. What is a humble sea-dog to think?

I confess that I will abide in Hell, and right merrily, if it means that whoreson Nicholas Hobbes be off my rudder, and never darken my spyglass again.

As this is the first opportunity I have found to write at length, I will lay out the whole tale for this record. We shipped out of Galway, at night, to cruise south and east around Cork and toward Cornwall and Wales, where fat English tubs waddle along the coast, full of English wealth. And if we came across any Irish ships, well, so long as they were not of the same clan and sept as I or the men, then we would participate in the ancient Gaelic tradition of sharing the wealth: some for he at the point of the sword, and more for the one at the hilt.

We had only been eight days at sea, just passing Cruachan and looking toward Clear Island, when we spotted an English carrack with her mainmast down, limping along only with her fore and mizzen, and the canvas on those letting through more wind than it caught. We had a disputation, with Quartermaster O’Flaherty and Bosun’s Mate Burke proposing an immediate assault, and Master’s Mate O’Gallows and I in favor of sailing by in preference of richer prizes. I contended that the ship, clearly the worse off for a sea battle, would have nothing left to take; the romantic Ian quoth, “‘Twould be base to set on an ill and wounded gaffer such as this! Let him limp home and ease into a mug of ale and a chair by the fire!” Indeed, the ship did look much like a toothless maunderer, weatherbeaten and frailed by years and hard use. But O’Flaherty would fain waylay that poor benighted vessel, for any fight had long since been knocked from its decks. “Sure and there may be but little to lay hand to – but what ’tis, ’twill fall into our palms like overripe berries.”

Alas, while I had called O’Flaherty and O’Gallows to my poop deck for this discussion, Burke had taken his and the Quartermaster’s argument straight to the men, and my brave Irish sea-wolves were eager to see what scraps could be gnawed off the tattered bone. I confess I let myself be swayed by their cries and pleas, perhaps because I knew that my fellow sea-brigands often miss valuable goods, taking only what comes first to hand or what is plainly worth stealing. But not all that glitters is gold, we are taught – and not all that is gold, glitters.

So we attacked. The carrack fired but one culverin, which was overcharged so that the shot flew far beyond the Grace, the sound rolling and echoing like thunder. The sound, in truth, did us more harm than the shot, though we knew it not, then. We tacked nearer with great care, for the carrack was upwind of the Grace and close enough to land that we needs must keep a weather eye open for shoal water. As we approached, Burke gave a glad shout: “Look! There’s naught but a few sorry bastards left!” For indeed, we could see but little activity on her decks: two men back by the tiller, two more attempting to reload the culverin, and but a single man on the lines, for which reason the poor battered ship sailed straight for shore with what wind she could catch on her quarter.

“Just sit back, lads! I’ll handle this myself,” boasted Burke, that gibbering ape. The men laughed, but even that day, when none of us knew what misery and what tribulations O’Flaherty and his trained monkey had brought down on our heads, I cursed the day our quartermaster forced that blackguard of an Englishman on me as my bosun.

For it was just as Burke was posturing, cutlass and pistol in hand, that an alarum was raised from the lookout above. “Two sails! Northwest! Sails ahoy!” Bless that man – ’twas young Balthazar Lynch – for not forgetting his duty and losing himself in the excitement of the coming plunder and my bosun’s capering. He saved us that day.

Two sails indeed: they came around the head of Clear Island, where they had lain hidden in wait. The double-powder shot had been a signal that someone had taken the bait: and now the noose was tightening ’round us. Two fine ships, a brig and a galleon, flying British colors; their sails were crisp and white, stretched taut by a good wind that brought them directly across our bow. Their cannons gleamed, and their decks and rigging held dozens, scores, of men.

I lost no time: I roared at the helmsman, MacTeigue, to come about, and sent the men up to drop all sails. We had a lead now, being downwind already, and I hoped we could escape in my good speedy ship.

But while I had been watching the approaching enemy, I had, like a fool, forgotten the third ship: the bait ship. As soon as they saw us start our turn, men which had been crouched behind her rail leapt up and lined the bow, some climbing into the rigging, some running out cannons that had been covered with canvas and debris. And as we slowed and turned, our sails flapping, they fired on us. The Grace was holed – alas, my lovely lady! But her wound lay above the waterline, thankfully. The yards on both masts were damaged by chain shot, and eight good men went down in a hail of musket-fire. Eleven more were wounded in that volley, and five of them would die in the coming days.

I almost wished that Burke and O’Flaherty had been numbered among the dead, except my mother taught me never to wish death on any man, as it brings the Reaper’s attention on the wisher as much as the target. And a moment later, I was glad for their continued health, as both men leapt into action, chivvying and hurrying the men to the lines, to bring the wounded to Vaughn’s cabin below, to ready the cannon should we need to fire. With their help, we made the turn and fled south-west – into the horizon and the trackless sea.

They came after us, of course. The bait ship was left behind soon enough: she did not have new sails or a smooth hull hidden behind the rail with the men and cannon. But the brig and the galleon came for us. The galleon had a bow chaser, a basilisk, but by fortune’s blessing we were out of range and stayed there.

As it turned, it was the other ship that we grew to fear. The brig carried less armament, which let her fly over the waves, nearly as fleet as my Grace. And in our damaged, undermanned state, she could match us.

And match us she did.

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Captain’s Log #1: Arrival

Captain’s Log

Date:

Location:

Conditions:

 

It cannot be.

I am captain of the Grace of Ireland, and the twenty-one men remaining of her crew. I have been master of this ship these past five years, so I know – aye, I know – the log should begin with the day and our location and conditions, heading and speed of the ship. Curse me, but I would record all that if I could be sure –

if I could just know

It cannot be, it cannot!

– if I could only know that I am not mad. That we are not in Hell.

I believe it is the 23rd of June in the year 1678, by the common reckoning. I think we are at anchor in a cove on the eastern shore of the New World. It is the 73rd day since we started our cruise, from Galway Bay in Connacht. The ship is leaking, as it has been since we left Irish waters, but we cannot beach and careen her until the storm that chased us here has passed over. Four men are manning the pumps for now, and the Mate assures me we will survive the storm afloat.

Unless, of course, we are already dead.

I don’t know who to pray to. Or who to curse, come to that.

I prayed for our deliverance as my mother taught me: in the language of our land and our people, stretching back through the centuries, through generations of Gaelic kings to the seven Sons of Mil who wrested Erin from the Tuatha De Danann, and the gods and goddesses who birthed them and watched over them, and over the Milesians in turn.

But I confess to doubting these gods and goddesses of Ireland, for sure it is that prayers rose up to them in untold thousands, washed clean with tears and sanctified with innocent blood, when the English Devil Cromwell descended on our land like the plagues of Egypt, like all the conquerors and raiders and savages out of the west and the north who have laid waste to Ireland since the dawn of time. And these gods, Dagda and Nuada and Lugh, Danu and Goibniu and the Morrigan, they failed us in our hour of need and let the black-souled English slaughter whole generations, and paint the stones of Ireland red with blood that will never wash away.

The gods of old did not save Ireland. They did not save my mother, Maeve ni Cathan, the daughter of kings, the great-granddaughter of Grainne ni Maille herself, with ancient knowledge writ in her brain and her bones and her blood. They let her be raped by an Englishman on the streets of Drogheda. Raped by a Puritan, by a man of God come to conquer heresy and sin – so they claimed.

Raped by my father. And nine months after he gave my mother a bastard son, he gave me the name of his own fate, his doom for the sin of his lust, and the even greater sin of allowing my heathen mother to live after he defiled her: Damnation.

My friends call me Nate.

Perhaps I should pray to the God of my father, the God of Abraham and Saint Patrick. The God of Cromwell. But why should he listen to me? Sure and no man has been born so far out of His sight, the get of a corrupted hypocrite and a proud pagan, raised by one to hate the other.

And I think it no help to my pleas that I have earned my name a hundred times in the ten years since I reached manhood, in seeking my vengeance on half of my blood in the name of the other half. Even if my father’s sins had not passed on to me, I have a gracious plenty of my own, theft and piracy and plunder and aye, murder.

No, the Father of Adam will not listen to me, either. I think he may have already sent us to his Hell and barred the gate after us. Certain it is that the living world, the home of His beloved children, could not hold such things as I have seen this day.

Such things . . . –

I must be mad.

I have lived my whole life at sea, fishing with my uncles before I could walk the length of the curragh, rowing their trading galleys past the English blockades, and sometimes through them. I have been to London and seen the greatest ships ever built by the hand of man, three decks and four masts and enough cannon to drown out the thunder itself.

But that thing that I saw when we came in sight of the shore! I thought it was a part of the land: the White Cliffs of Dover on the shore of the New World. Until it moved. Until it blew smoke from its back, like the spume of a whale, and sounded a horn that could have drowned out Gabriel’s trumpet, and then it sailed across the bay before us. Against the wind. Against the tide.

I looked at it through my glass, and I swear to you it held men. Men crawled over it like lice. They waved and they cheered. It was a ship. A ship that could not be.

I must be mad.

But if I were, would not those impossible sights continue? If my eyes were deceived, if they had betrayed me then, would I see my hands on this page, the quill in my fingers, the spatters of ink from my pot? All is still, now; nothing is unfamiliar to me. We sit at anchor in a cove, the land around us thick with greenery. Though I do not know the trees, still they are trees. My men look like men, my ship still like the ship I have sailed nearly every day since she was refit three years ago, the ship I have sailed thousands of miles in the past two months, from the seas of Ireland to this distant shore.

Could it be the Isle of the Blessed? Have I followed the path of St. Brendan the Navigator, himself? How can I know? We sailed off the ends of charts a month gone. Perhaps we sailed off the edge of the world, too.

But I think we would not be welcome in Paradise. And if we were, sure my ship would not still leak.

It was a hundred feet high, two hundred. Pure white, shining like the clouds in a summer sky. It would have stretched from one end of the village where my mother raised me to the other, and beyond. It was smoking – there was fire on it – fire, the curse of ships, the terror of all sailors. And it sailed through the waves, without sail, without oars.

I looked through my glass and I saw the faces of the men and women aboard. I saw children. They smiled.

I looked at its bow and I saw written there in letters as tall as a man, “GRAND PRINCESS.”

It was a ship. A ship the size of a mountain.

We are in Hell.

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