All is lost.
No. Not all. If all were lost, what matter this log, these pages that record my life? My mind?
I know not for whom I write. At the first, and at various times since our arrival here, I have taken up this pen as a way to order my mind: I find that constricting my rampant thoughts into determinate words, especially those inscribed in the permanence of ink on paper, is a great aid to the elimination of confusion, the solution of dilemma, as the act often leads to a certainty in plans of action henceforward. After I thought that I knew our place, I hoped the tale might be preserved for posterity and the general interest – aye, and my name preserved as well, I did hope. I thought then that we would return to our native land, and my fellow men would read these words and know of our deeds, our failures and triumphs. Of late I think I have taken to this log as something of a confessor: I unburden my soul by writing here of my weaknesses and iniquities and follies, too numerous now to count.
Methinks I must write these words for my men. Soon I will be gone from them, and they may be lost; I must attempt to explain the steps we took to reach this place, so that they may find a path forward. Of course some of ye know somewhat of this, being a part of it; but I think ye do not know the whole of what I have done and the reasoning wherefore.
Thus I say, if you are reading this, my friends, Ian, Llewellyn, Balthazar, my good cousin Owen, stout Kelly, Sergeant MacManus, my strong-hearted lads: I beg your forgiveness. I have led you all so far astray. I regret it more than any sin of my thrice-cursed life that I cannot bring ye all home again.
I cannot. My ship – the Grace is, though she floats still, now shorn of that enchantment which, I believe, opened the way through Time itself to bring us here. She will never sail those mystical waters again. This world, now, is your only world. I wish you well of it.
I hope that the sacrifice of my life to save yours brings me some measure of atonement.
I will now recount for you all of what I have learned this night, so that ye may all comprehend what I now do: I know elsewise will I seem enmaddened, and I know not what constraints my madness may place on you. There are no constraints, lads: I am sound, and I am content with the one act left to me. I do this freely. Ye are free men – Irishmen. Gentlemen of fortune. Do as you will. I wish ye all joys this world may offer ye.
Once I had learned of Nicholas Hobbes the location of my captive friends, and the name of the villain who held them captive, I urged our hired pilot Andre to course us there directly so I could learn of the disposition of our foes and form stratagems. Howsoever, once Andre had learned of Lyle Okagaweh’s involvement, he insisted on speaking to Two-Saint before proceeding against such a foe; if I had needed further proof that a man may not serve two masters, I have such. As Andre served as our pilot, the steering of the ship was in his hands and his hands alone; had I wrested the conveyance from him, still I could not have found our destination without his assistance. Hence I acquiesced, though bitterly, and we returned to our lodging. Andre there did make the attempt to contact Two-Saint by ‘phone, but could not, said he, get a signal, and so he departed alone to seek out his liege. I conferred with my men, who all agree that, subtlety and subterfuge being requisite for a nighttime invasion seeking mainly intelligence, Balthazar Lynch should be my accomplice, as he is the slightest, quickest, and most silent hunter of we four. Then we had naught to do but wait, and so did we, I keeping this log and recording my conversation with Hobbes. I wondered, and worried, over his description of this man Okagaweh, this Shadowman, he calls him, and that he held my men at his mercy; what toxin did he infuse in this so-called physic that delivered both euphoria and will-sapping enslavement? Would my men still be under his sway, even though I tore them bodily from his clutches?
Will any of us be truly free? Have we ever been?
At length, and surely mere moments before the last tether of my sanity broke under the strain of waiting in idleness, Andre returned. Two-Saint had sanctioned this initial foray, but he wanted us not to engage with Lyle Okagaweh or his men, and not to underestimate them, for this Shadowman is a dire adversary. But I and my men have fought the weight of the British Empire for all of our lives; Irishmen fear no foe. Lynch and I were secured into the Jeep-beast ere Andre was finished speaking, and so soon as we could acknowledge his warnings, we weighed anchor and sailed.
To our advantage, the clouds overhead had hooded the moon’s lantern; Lynch’s apparel was dark already, and I was able to borrow a shirt of Diego Colina’s – the man has proved both an honorable and generous host, and a staunch ally; I beg you gentlemen to prefer him if you can – to replace my white finery; we smeared mud on our milk-white Irishness once we arrived. Andre halted the Jeep-beast some several ship’s-lengths away from the place, so as not to alert sentries with the beast’s grumbling; he remained aboard to keep watch, having taken note of Lynch’s eye-phone and ascertaining how he could give and receive signals, were there need. Lynch and I crept through black-hearted jungle, then, snared and clutched by the foliage, stumbling on the uneven terrain, hunted by the night-calls of animals such as we had never heard before. We sensed perils all about us, above us and below us, before and behind; if Lynch was not as terrified as I, then I am mad.
Soon enough, though, we broke from cover into a long clear slope leading down towards the shore, though a forested rise betwixt us and the sea kept us from seeing the water. Even in the darkness, we could make out the road, a band of lighter earth leading to the house we sought, which had some lamps burning dimly against the night. Assured therefore that the night-eyes of any guards would be light-blind, we made our way quickly to the vicinity of the domicile, taking shelter behind a copse of low trees.
We soon espied that which we sought: a metal cage with the forms of men spread across the ground within; in the moments when the breeze quieted, we could hear their grunts and grumbles, and not a few moans of sore suffering. We could hear too the slow crash of waves, telling us that the shore was indeed close, and giving me hope that my Grace might be near as well.
We also spied that which we had not sought, though of course we expected: a watch kept by the house. Two guards stood and conversed, one diligently searching the darkness, the other seated, nodding, seeking the plum coveted by all men on watch: the kiss of sweet slumber. Though we could not hear their converse, as any men who have kept a night’s watch, we knew the thrust of it: one man sought to keep honorable vigil, while the other assured him, after what days or weeks of fruitless alertness, that they should sleep without fear; the final compromise was that each man followed his heart, and soon there was but one guard on watch, while one man snored in a chair on the porch of the house.
We watched as the sentry circled the house, keeping a regular pattern of movement, until we knew that we might have some minutes to approach and investigate the cage and its contents. Lynch stayed back in case I might need a diversion of the guard’s attention, or to call in Andre for our speedy withdrawal, and I crept to the cage, crawling on my belly while the guard faced my direction, and then scuttling crab-wise as he vanished around the house’s corner.
I approached the cage, and I stopped and stared, trusting my dark attire and mud-smeared skin to hide me from the sentry’s nearby perambulations. I thought I might recognize one of the men nearest me – Malachy Rearden, I thought – but I was certain I did not recognize the pale flaxen-haired youth who groaned and moaned beside him, clearly in discomfort and perhaps fevered, though the darkness hid detail. But I had not doubt that he was not of my crew. Perhaps I was deceived about Rearden, and these were some other men. Could there possibly be two such cages filled with miserable men? Might Hobbes have misled me?
Had I fallen into another trap set by the Devil’s Lash?
It took every bit of my will to hold me there and prevent my leaping up and absquatulating at top speed. I rehearsed the words I traded with Hobbes, recalled his demeanor and expression; I was as certain as I could be that he had spoke the plain truth. Which was not entirely certain, nay, as Hobbes is English and therefore untrustable; also he is by his own admission no longer the commander of this voyage, and thus may himself be ignorant or misled, and myself the same at one remove. But even if this were not an ambush, I asked myself: who were these men in this cage? Cage there surely was, and men within; if they were not my men, might they know the way to my crew? Could I free them, would they stand with us? Or at the least serve to distract our enemies?
Reasoning thus, I crept closer while the guard was beyond the house, and came around to the side of the cage, where I once more lay still and peered through the darkness at the mounds of the men who there lay. Was that – a man’s round belly, rising up where he lay on his back? Could it be Padraig Doyle, who carried such a belly? There, that man: was that the white hair of our Salty O’Neill? How could I be certain, looking in pure darkness on huddled men sleeping ten yards away from me?
But then a man rose up on an elbow and spoke, loudly, these words: “If ye be kickin’ me the once more, Robert Sweeney, ye horn-footed goat-shite, I’ll gnaw yer foot off with me bloody eyeteeth!” The man sounded as though more than half of him was asleep and the rest was cross, but ‘twas all Ian O’Gallows. These were my men. Now I moved closer with confidence, and had to stem my eagerness so that I could maintain surreptitiousness.
Despite my efforts, I made some sound, and one of the men lying at the very edge of the cage heard me then, and lifted his head to peer out into the darkness. Soon his gaze must have caught on the one part of myself I could not black with mud nor cloth: the whites of my eyes. I saw him stiffen, saw his hand clutch at the metal mesh that enclosed them, and I knew that I was seen. I raised a hand and covered my mouth, pointing at him with the other hand to enjoin his silence, and the man nodded; I crept closer, having to pause for the time when the sentry ambled by, on the far side of the cage from where I lay on my belly, but still in plain sight through the unsolid walls of the enclosure.
When I was within a man’s length of the cage, I recognized the man who seen me: ‘twas Llewellyn Vaughn. I had to smile at how his vigilance surpassed that of all my battle-tested sea-wolves; Vaughn is no warrior, but his is the broadest intellect, the deepest thought, and the sharpest fine perception of us all. I heard him whisper then, no more than a breath of air, and easily mistaken for the murmur of a sleeping man, “Captain?”
I waved my fingers at him and crept closer still, unwilling to speak until I was beside the cage, and my whisper could become indistinguishable from that of one of the captive men (were I to whisper from six feet away, it may be noted by one within as coming from an unlikely direction). Soon I was near enough to reach the metal mesh myself, and I reached and clasped Vaughn’s fingers, he gripping in return with the strength of great hope’s return into a heart full of despair.
“You came,” he whispered to me.
“Well and how could I not, seeing how pleasant your letter made it all seem?” I winked at him to show I jested; Vaughn has many great gifts, but a sense of humor is not among them, nor an understanding of ironical comments. “How fare you all?”
“We are wounded,” Vaughn replied. “All of us, as well as the three sailors from Captain Hobbes’s crew who were placed in the cage with us. Several of the men have fevers, and all are weak from sun and a lack of water and food.”
I squeezed his fingers to stop him ere he could sail off into a specific and detailed report of every man’s every hurt; Vaughn never considered a question as having been answered until he had imparted every fact in his mind that related to the query – and his mind could hold enough facts to fill a ship’s hold. “Hobbes has men in there?” I lowered my whisper until it was barely enough breath to stir a fly from my lip.
Vaughn still heard me, and he nodded. “Three. They refused orders and this is their punishment. It is not clear if their ostracism is permanent, or intended to create an opportunity to infiltrate and gather intelligence from our men. In my opinion, there is little need for subterfuge; all that they wish to know is your whereabouts, Captain. They have had no use for us but as proverbial whipping boys.”
I frowned at him. “They flogged ye? All of ye?”
He nodded. “At least twice for every man in this cage. Three for O’Gallows who attempted to intercede and prevent a flogging that likely would have proved fatal for O’Neill, and nearly was for Ian.”
I had to take a deep breath and let it out slowly to control my temper, and it was only when Vaughn softly whispered, “Ow,” that I realized my grip was crushing his fingers through the metal mesh. Quickly I let go, dipping my head in apology. “Will ye fetch Ian for me, Llewellyn?”
He nodded, and shifted himself to his left, reaching out to the nearest prone form and gripping the man’s calf. After a moment, the man started out of sleep, muttering, “Wha? Whozzat?” Vaughn left his hnd on the man’s leg until he turned his head, and I saw it was Ian O’Gallows. Ian rubbed his eyes, gazing a bleary-eyed query at Vaughn; the Welshman merely pointed at me. Ian looked my way, and I raised a hand and waggled my fingers in greeting; I don’t know that he recognized me through the mud on my face or if he saw that I was without the cage and simple deduced who I must be, but first he said “Christ’s shite!”, then clapped a hand over his own mouth, and looked to the house where the sleeping sentry was the only guard in sight, the watchful sentry having gone around to the far side. Then Ian looked around the cage, though to my eyes none of the other men had reacted to his cursing. Still he slapped a hand at his leg, muttered somewhat about accursed biting fleas, and then shifted around until his head was near me. He pillowed his head on his hands and whispered, “Thank God for ye, Nate.” Then he feigned a snore.
I will not recapitulate what he told me then; he repeated Vaughn’s uncertainty about the Sea-Cat men in the cage, though at least he thought to tell me that they all slept at the other end and could not hear us over the sound of more than a dozen men snoring. I asked if they could escape, or fight their way free, and he told me nay, as they were too weak, hungry, and sick. I asked for the details of how they had come to this pass, and he reached to his ribs, removing a packet of blood-spotted bandages, which he stuffed through a hole in the fence; I knew not why he wanted me to have it until he named it his log. I will include it with these pages, and save myself the reiteration. Even rescue by myself, Kelly, MacManus and Lynch was problematic as, O’Gallows told me, three of our men were not held in the cage: Salty O’Neill, Abram O’Grady, and my cousin Owen MacTeigue, were all three held inside the house, in he knew not what condition.
Hearing that, I knew there was no choice: Hobbes had been right. I patted Ian’s hand, told him not to worry, and to tell the men that all would soon be well. I made to withdraw, asking only if my Grace was indeed nearby; I wished for lone last look at her before I do what I must for my men.
‘Twas Vaughn that answered. “Yes, Captain, the Grace is just beyond those trees, at anchor in the cove below. But – Captain, I fear that she will not sail as before.”
I hissed in a breath, but Ian frowned at Vaughn and whispered, “Nay, there be naught wrong wi’ the ship. Apart from the bilge rats who have crawled up to man her decks, and that horror they have nailed down before the mast.” I knew he must refer to the Scourged Lady, as Kelly had told me they had brought their accursed figurehead aboard my sweet Grace when they captured her in New York.
Vaughn looked at me and then at Ian. “I refer to her – inexplicable sailing. How she brought us here.” He looked back at me. “It was that voyage that drew the attention of our captor, the one referred to by his men as the Shadowman. He seeks the ship’s power. It seems that he thinks you yourself are required for the ship to perform in the manner he wishes.” He paused for a moment, cleared his throat quietly – and then we waited for the sentry to pass around the corner once more before he continued. “If his first experiment is an indication, he believes that your blood is the key to the ship’s ability. Or perhaps your death. I speculate that his killing of Raymond Fitzpatrick, who claimed to be your blood relative, was his first attempt to command the Grace’s performance. Ironic, then, that this same murder may have removed that power from the Grace entirely.”
I had to stop myself from shouting at him to get to the point; I merely gripped the mesh, hard, and hissed at him, my eyes wide, my face surely that of a madman.
He got to the point. “The runes, Captain. The glowing runes on the ship’s stern are now gone, blotted out, it seems, by Mr. Fitzpatrick’s life’s blood. I have seen the ship in starlight and moonlight, and I saw not a glimpse of its former luminescence. Naught but a dark stain now decorates the Grace’s stern.”
We each glanced up to the sky, and realized then that the clouds had broken, and we were bathed in the light of the moon’s full face. I had to retreat, then, as the light would make me too easily seen, should the sleeping sentry awaken or the wakeful one glance my way as I retreated. I bid my friends farewell, knowing in my heart that it was likely for the last time, though I said nothing of that. I bid them take heart, keep hope, and wait.
Then I went to see my ship.
Ah, ye gods! She is such beauty, such an incarnation of pure freedom and might, made into a construct of sailcloth and rope, wood and nails and tar. And now: blood. And no longer: magic. Vaughn is right; I saw the dark stain, saw where my mother’s runes are no longer visible. If he is correct that those letters inscribed on the Grace were the means of our travel through time – and I believe that is the truth – then they are gone, and all hope of our returning home is gone with them.
I stayed in my shadowed space, under the line of trees atop the small rise, gazing down on my lovely ship, for as long as I could. When I knew that Lynch and Andre would be growing anxious, and may endeavor to seek me, I turned my back on my Grace, and crept back, with a heavy heart and a jet-black mind, to where Lynch waited, and then together we returned to Andre, and then here, to the house of Diego Colina.
On the morrow I will take the last steps required to see my men freed, though if the Grace can no longer sail through time, I know not how the Shadowman will respond. It does not change what I must do. I will give this log to Lynch, who can carry it to Ian or Vaughn, who can read it; they will together plot a new course for the men who have followed me, and now will follow me no more, for they must not go where I go.
I shall not return.
I wish ye well, lads, and may all the blessings of Heaven and Earth descend upon ye all. Ye deserve every one.