When nostalgia is misplaced.

Fair warning: I am about to not step on some toes, but stomp on some writing fantasies. So if you’re bothered by such things, you might want to stop reading now.

Now that the warnings are out of the way, let’s get down to business.

Recently, in an online writer’s group I’m involved in, someone asked where they could find a typewriter. Their reasoning for asking was that they were having problems writing because their laptop was randomly failing as they used it. My response was simple: forget about looking for a typewriter and find someone to fix the laptop so they could get on with writing.

For my efforts, I received some pointed negative comments, but I stand by my position: Modern computers, even those in need of serious TLC, are infinitely better writing implements than typewriters.

I do not take this position because I used to work on computers for a living, but because of past experience writing on both computers and typewriters.

For roughly the first year of my time as a writer, i.e. someone who writes material for others to read, I used a typewriter. It wasn’t anything elegant, just an (even then, nearly thirty years ago) ancient Underwood manual. I had been looking for some way to get stuff in printed form, and had picked it up for what I thought was a song at an auction sale. Of course, once I started using it, I found out why it had been so cheap: it needed a new ribbon (yes, it used an honest-to-gods ribbon, one on a pair of spools that had to feed into place by hand), half the keys had their letters crudely painted on, the hammers themselves often stuck, and it was rare event when all the text lined up perfectly.

For all that, it got me started, and until I found a cheap computer and printer (an elderly Kaypro that should have been in a museum even before I laid hands on it and a very early HP Laserjet printer that weighed about as much as a modern Smart car), I was glad to make do with what I had. It wasn’t until I first sat down and worked with a word processing package (WordPerfect, if memory serves) that I realized that writing wasn’t something to suffer while doing. No more lines of text that jogged all over the place. No more pages where the text angled subtly from one side to the other because I hadn’t quite gotten the paper in correctly. No stopping to ‘white out’ an error, or to plaster it on a portion of a page so I could change a sentence completely. No more worrying about pages accidentally getting out of order because I knocked what I’d already typed over.

Since then, I’ve gone through several different computers, many printers, and more than a few word processing packages, but never once have I felt a desire to go back to the ‘good old days’ of using a typewriter. Don’t get me wrong, if a typewriter is all you can afford, then go with one. If you need to sit down in front of a typewriter to get your ‘creative juices’ flowing, more power to you. But please, when you’re talking about them, don’t look at the experience through the rose-colored glasses of nostalgia. There’s one universal truth we should all acknowledge: typewriters are a pain to work with. Compared to computers, even the balkiest ones, they’re seriously inferior in usability. So the next time you read/hear some writer expressing an interest in getting a typewriter, especially some young writer who does not know what they’re really like to use, please give them an honest opinion of the beast they are about to tangle with.

BTW, here’s my old Underwood. I keep it around partly because it weighs so much I’m not sure the garbage men would take it if I threw it out, but mostly to remind me of how much better I have it these days.

underwoodx1

The Screaming Tree

It wasn’t that Ciaran and Ciara O’Breoghan were naughty children. No, there were many children who behaved naughtily among the families that made up the The O’Breoghan’s household. What made Ciaran and Ciara truly stand out was the fact that they enjoyed being naughty.

The scarlet-haired twins had heard, again and again, that they should behave ‘properly’. There father, their mother, their tutors and even their servants would remind them that they were The Future Of The Clan O’Breoghan. Ciaran was told how he would one day take his father’s place as chieftain of the clan. Ciara had heard how she would one day marry the son of one of the neighboring clan’s chieftain.

And both of them hated being told what they would do.

At ten years of age, both of them both of them wanted nothing to do with the boring necessities of becoming the people their parents wanted them to be Yet no matter how much they protested, no matter how they tried to avoid it, they’d been told that as the only surviving children of Ruari O’Breoghan, what they wanted was less important than what their clan needed.

So they had settled on gone out of their way to be annoying. In hopes that their bad behavior would cause their parents to reconsider, they made a game of finding new ways to try the patience of their servants. They tormented one tutor after another until they gave up. And as often as they could, they offended guests to their father’s hall.

Of all their acts, this caused their parents the most trouble. In Irish society, the guests of a chieftain were honored before everyone else in the household but the chieftain themselves. So the twins took great pleasure in offering offense to any and all people who guested in Ruari O’Breoghan’s hall.

Tonight’s guest was a traveling shanachie. Both twins loved the stories brought by shanachies, and their resolve to cause trouble wavered when they first heard such an important person would be visiting. Then they saw their father’s guest. He looked nothing like the other shanachies who’d visited. His robes were frayed and filthy, and the skin of his face hung in pale folds around the pale eyes of a blind man. He seemed to hang from the pair of attendants who supported him, not walk proudly to face their father as the other shanachies had. But when he spoke, in a high, squeaky voice, they found it hard to hold in the gale of laughter that arose in both of them.

“Ruari O’Breoghan, son of Rian O’Breoghan, who was son of Niall O’Breoghan, who’s father bore your name, I thank you for your gracious hospitality. May your house and clan know peace and plenty through all the years.”

Both children watched in stunned amazement as their father rose from his seat and embraced the filthy old man. “Diarmuid Mac Giolla Bháin, son of Daithi Mac Giolla Bháin, who’s fame is know across Ireland, Scotland and even among the English, I bid you welcome. It has been far too long since you have graced this hall. I was but a boy of nine when you visited last, and I hope I may show you as much honor as my father did.”

Taking the old man’s arm over his shoulder, father helped him to a seat servants brought and set beside the fire. There the two of them fell to talking of that long ago visit, a subject neither child cared to hear of. They made to leave, but their movement drew their father’s attention. “Children, come meet our guest for tonight, the greatest shanachie in Ireland, Scotland and England, Diarmuid Mac Giolla Bháin.”

To walk away would anger their father, and earn them banishment from the feast that was to come, so Ciaran and Ciara came forward to address the old shanachie. “We bid you welcome to this hall, Diarmuid Mac Giolla Bháin, greatest of all shanachies.” they chorused together.

Diarmuid cocked his head to one side, and an unpleasant smile spread across his toothless mouth. “Ah, I am welcome by you two, am I? I wonder where that welcome was when you were stiffing your laughter at my appearance not a moment ago?”

Ciaran and Ciara spared a quick glance, each seeing the other’s face go pale in response to their father’s face going crimson with embarrassment. Both of them began stammered attempts at apology, but their father’s voice growled out an apology that drown theirs out. “I apologize for my children’s ill manners, Diarmuid Mac Giolla Bháin. Ciaran, Ciara, apologize to Himself, now!”

They’d only heard that tone applied to those who had gotten on the bad side of their father’s temper, and never to themselves. Bowing low, they put every bit of the chagrin they felt into their apology. We are most humbly sorry for have offered offense to you, Diarmuid Mac Giolla Bháin.”

They kept their faces down-turned, waiting for the acceptance of their words they expected. Instead, after a long silence, they heard a single sniff before the old man began speaking to their father again of his travels. Both of them wished to leave, but knew that until the old shanachie spoke to them, they could not, in good grace, even stand straight. He kept talking, pointedly ignoring them, and both children went from fear of their father’s reaction to anger at being so treated in their own hall. Worse, father kept up his side of the conversation, ignoring them and their plight as if they were invisible.

It wasn’t until after he’d finished a long, rambling account of his visit to the hall of the King of Connachta that Diarmuid Mac Giolla Bháin took notice of them. And even then, all he said to them was “Oh, you children may go.” before he launched into a story about his encounter with a Milesian trader.

Together, they raised their heads, hoping to find their father ready to rebuke the old shanachie for his lack of courtesy to them. Instead, they found their father listening with rapt attention to to the old man’s tale of the joys of wine from across the wide ocean. He did not even look towards them, leaving Ciaran and Ciara with no choice but to retire.

The shame they felt, being treated in such a manner in their own hall, felt beyond bearing. But it was nothing compared to the way the servants treated them. Like all great halls, theirs was staffed with many slaves. Some were captives taken from among the English, others people taking in battle and forced to serve those who had conquered them. All of them knew to lower their eyes and act humbly around their master and his children. Now, though, every time the children walked past a servant, there was a moment, just as their gaze slide away from them, when they saw not humbleness, but triumph. Their servant’s faces were no longer studiously blank in their presence, but held the trace of a smile, as they reveled in their tormentor’s discomfort.

That humiliation, with their father’s ignorance of their plight, raised a tide of anger in both of them they fought to contain until alone. The room they shared was the only place they could truly be alone, and once the door had closed, they both began to shout.

How could father let him…”

Can you believe the way that English serving girl looked at us…”

That we could be treated so, by our own father…..”

That old man, how dare he…”

It’s beyond bearing, it is!”

It cannot go unanswered!”

In that moment, as they often did, both children were struck by the same thought. They would find some way to take their revenge, not only on Diarmuid Mac Giolla Bháin, but on all those who they thought had mistreated them. But how? No matter how much they debated the problem, neither of them could find a method for exacting their vengeance. They were brooding on the injustice of it all when the nameless old hag who tended them entered their room.

Your father bids me remind you to be clean and properly dressed for the feast tonight. As the other servants are busy setting the table, you should be getting ready.”

Those words sparked the same thought in both of them, a thought they held inside until they were alone again.

If we can make others laugh at that old fool…”

“….then father will have no choice but to forgive us!”

They sketched out their idea as they dressed, laughing at each new addition they came up with. Ciaran stopped in mid-laugh. “But we can’t let them know what we plan to do.”

Of course not, brother. We must be as meek as mice and as polite as can be.”

With those words, they both banished any sign of mirth from their faces and walked side by side to the feasting hall.

Outside, the rumble of thunder told them that Taranis was busy this night, but the feasting hall shone bright with candles and fires. Father and the shanachie were already seated, but enough to the family retainers had yet to arrive that Ciaran and Ciara’s arrival could not be regarded as late. They approached the two men together, bowing low before speaking.

Diarmuid Mac Giolla Bháin, we most humbly offer you our apology. Our ill manners brought shame to our clan, our father and this house.”Ciaran started, and Ciara finished. “We both bid you welcome to our hall and house, and hope you will enjoy our hospitality.”

They’d practiced the speech several times, and both children thought their presentation perfect. It caused their father to smile at them like they’d just recited the epic of Fionn mac Cumhaill from memory. But Diarmuid Mac Giolla Bháin? His blind eyes stared at them until they as transparent as the waters of Loch na Coille Bige, and he could see their lie as clear as a great brown trout swimming just beneath the surface. Then cheerful smile spread across his face. “Of course, children, and I thank you for your kind welcome. Please, don’t bother yourself over an old man’s ill humors. It’s only natural for children to desire enjoyment. So I hope you will feast and enjoy yourself this night.”

Unnerved but happy to be free, the twins took their place at the long table to await the coming feast. Their wait was short, as all the retainers had heard that tonight one of the greatest shanachies in all the Irish lands was to entertain them. That, and the rich feast such a visit would entail were enough to draw every member of the household with a claim to a spot at The O’Breoghan’s table. When the last had taken his spot, father arose to address them all.

Join me in welcoming our guest tonight, Diarmuid Mac Giolla Bháin.” The crowd raised their flagons in a roar of agreement, even the twins lifted their cups of cider. After a long silence as everyone drank the great shanachie’s health, the old man rose and lifted his own flagon. “I thank you all for your welcome and kindness. But now is no time for speeches by old men like me. Eat, drink, enjoy yourselves. Sláinte!”

An even louder chorus of agreement and laughter greeted this, and as the old man settled himself again, servants began to pour into the hall bearing food. The feast that followed brought food of every type, food in quantities fit to challenge even the greatest glutton. It flowed in such a delightful manner that the twins began to enjoy themselves, even to the point of forgetting their pledge of vengeance against Diarmuid Mac Giolla Bháin. But no feast last forever, and as the last plates were being taken away, every flagon was topped off and their father again rose to address the hall.

My clan, I ask you to join me again drinking the health of Diarmuid Mac Giolla Bháin, and to ask him to grace us with the telling of one of the great tales.” The shouts that greeted this call befitted the quantity of drink and food that had gone into the assembly. They were by far the loudest of the night, and with the drink on them, the adults called out their suggestions for what tale they wished to hear.

Tell us the tale Táin Bó Cúailnge!”

No, tell us of the forming of the Fianna!

Please, Diarmuid Mac Giolla Bháin, tell us the tale of Oidheadh chloinne Lir!”

The old man listened to the cries, quietly smiling, until The O’Breoghan raised his hand for silence. When the voices had stilled, he turned to the shanachie. “Diarmuid Mac Giolla Bháin, you are my guest, and it’s a poor host who demands payment for his hospitality. If you would choose to grace us with a tale, I would count it an honor beyond any I ever looked for. But I will not demand one of you, and if you decide to speak, I will not dictate to you what tale you tell.”

The old man bowed in his seat. “You honor me with your words, Ruari O’Breoghan. Truly, you and your hall know the meaning of hospitality far better than many another chieftain. But it would be a poor guest indeed who felt no need to repay such a feast as I have had this night. If you and yours will indulge me, I would tell the tale of Fionn mac Cumhaill and his many adventures.” The hall rang with approving shouts that brought a broad smile to the old shanachie’s face, but as they tapered off, his head turned towards Ciaran and Ciara. The smile became less one that of a man swept up in praise, and more like that of someone seeing a chance to do an old foe injury. “But that is a long tale, one that I will no doubt have to interrupt it to drink and ease my dry throat.” The men laughed at the joke, knowing the shanachie would drink many a flagon of beer before he finished. “And I would not expect the young ones here to stay awake through it all as courtesy would require. Ruari O’Breoghan, would it not be a wise thing to allow your children to retire for the night?”

Their father looked at them, then his guest, and the twins saw he had understood what was really being said. The old shanachie wanted them gone so they could not enjoy the telling of one of the greatest stories of all Ireland. Perhaps it was petty, but every chieftain knew how unwise it was to cross a traveling shanachie like Diarmuid Mac Giolla Bháin. “Perhaps you are right. Ciaran, Ciara, it is late, and you should be off to bed.”

Perhaps he expected them to be angry, and the twins were angry at how the shanachie had dismissed them out of hand. But as they rose and made their bows to their father, they also knew this would give them the perfect chance to exact their revenge on Diarmuid Mac Giolla Bháin. Ciaran and Ciara made their way to the door, but instead of leaving through it, they turned aside and slipped along the wall. They found a spot out of their father’s sight but visible to many of household and waited. They had to wait but a short moment. The shanachie rose from his seat to walk into the center of the hall. With a final bow to their father, he launched into the mighty tale.

Goll, son of Daire the Red, with fame,
Son of Eochaid the Fair, of valor excellent,
Son of Cairbre the Valorous with valor,
Son of Muiredach from Finnmag.

Goll slew Luchet of the hundreds
In the battle of Cnucha, it is no falsehood:
Luchet the Fair of prowess bright
Fell by the son of Morna.”

As he spoke, Diarmuid Mac Giolla Bháin’s arms swept about in the sort of dramatic gestures every shanachie they’d ever seen or heard loved to use. And as he gestured, the twins imitated his every movement in silence, making their movement even more exaggerated than the shanachie’s. At first, no one noticed their antics. Then one drunk warrior caught sight of them and nudged the fellow beside him. Both of them smiled as the the sad opening rolled on.

By him fell great Cumall
In the battle of Cnucha of the hosts.
It is for the chieftaincy of Erin’s fian
That they waged the stout battle.

The children of Morna were in the battle
And the Luagni of Tara,
Since to them belonged the leadership of the men of Ireland
By the side of every valorous king.

Victorious Cumall had a son,
Finn, bloody, of weapons hard:
Finn and Goll, great their fame,
Mightily they waged war.”

A third man noticed them, and where the first two could contain their mirth, this one watched them for only a moment before chuckling, then bursting into open laughter. No man laughed at such a moment without drawing the attention of those around him. Worse, it drew the attention of Diarmuid Mac Giolla Bháin, and he paused in mid-stanza, their. When he did, their father came around the pillar that had kept them hidden. Finding Ciaran and Ciara were the cause of the commotion, his face went scarlet. For a long moment, they watched their father’s face as he struggled to contain the anger that filled his voice when he finally spoke. “What mischief have you two been up to? I told you to go to your beds!”

This was not the result they’d hoped for. Ciaran tried to answer. “Father, we….we were just…”

“Enough!” Their father had never shouted at them like this before, nor had he ever looked this beside himself with anger when dealing with their past deeds. He scrubbed his broad hands over his face before shaking his head. “I have tolerated your actions in the past because I thought it caused by your mother not being here to help care for you. Clearly, I have been too lenient in dealing with you. No more. Tonight, now, you will take yourselves to the cottage Cillian Mag Aoidh. You will stay there, obeying his command and helping him with his farm, until I decide you have learned your lesson.”

That stopped both of them. Cillian Mag Aoidh was the oldest retainer of their clan they knew of, a man so old he’d taught their father the use of weapons. For this service, their grandfather had gifted him a cottage and some land overlooking a cove most of a day’s walk from the hall. Did their father truly expect them to make the walk at night?

But father, how can we got to…”

Ciaran had no chance to finish his question. Father cut him off, his voice filled with anger. “You’ve made the walk more than once, both of you. Ill let you take your cloaks, it’s going to be a wet walk, but enough delays. You need to learn that your actions have consequences. If that means walking to an old man’s cottage in a storm, then consider it a small price to pay for the offense you have committed against this hall and your family’s name. Go! Be getting yourselves out of my sight.”

Their father stormed off to retake his seat, leaving them in a circle of shocked, silent faces. Ciarian turned to do as he was told, but Ciara, as usually, would not leave well enough alone. “This is all your fault, you filthy old beggar! Coming into our hall, disrupting our lives, and for what? So we can hear you tell a tale in your silly voice! Who’d want to hear you say anything?”

Such a blatant insult caused even Ciaran to gasp. He grabbed his sister’s arm, intent on checking her, but his words stooped in his throat when the bard turned towards them. His eyes were no longer milky white. No, now they glowed like the center of a forge as he spoke.

And who will ever hear your voice again, disrespectful child? Lugh sees what you children do, and all the gods have heard what you say. My you both repent your words and deeds, for if you don’t, then the gods will curse you to silence from this day forward.”

Whether it was those terrible eyes, or the cold ringing voice that called so ominous a curse down upon them, the twins fled the hall as fast as their feet would carry them. Yet even as they donned their cloaks, Ciara continued to rant about what had happened. “How dare he? Try to scare us with that silly curse, will he? Like I’d be put down by the likes of him!” She was still muttering under her breath as they exited the front door and made their way through the gate. As it closed behind them, Ciaran grabbed his sister’s arm, hoping to reason with her.

Are you mad, thinking his curse hollow? Did you not see his eyes, nor hear his voice? We need to apologize to Himself, we do.”

Ciara stopped, but listen to him? She’d never listened to him, or anyone else, once her blood was up. She shook off his hand, and stared at him for a long moment. Her voice, when she spoke, was like a whip of thorns on his soul. “Is it a brother I was born with, or a sister? Was I the only one born with any courage, or any sense of what’s right? No, we need to find a way to strike back for this insult, we do. For if we don’t, we’ll never be respected as long as we live.”

Her words drove Ciaran’s reason aside, leaving his anger to take control of him. “I’m no woman, and I’ll not have anyone say otherwise, not even you! But what can we do, now, cast out of the hall?”

We might be cast out of the hall, for now, but there’s no one to say we can’t plan our revenge while we walk now, is there?”

With those words, the twins set out through the growing darkness, spinning out more and more elaborate plans for taking revenge upon the shanachie. But with every step they took, the darkness of the storm, until then just a threatening presence on the horizon, came closer. Taranis announced it’s arrival with a stupendous clap of thunder, followed by a roaring wind filled with rain and hail. Their cloaks did little to protect them from the assault, so Ciaran grabbed his sister’s hand and together they ran through the deluge seeking shelter. But no cottage, not even a herdsman’s lowly shelter, did they find. Again and again, Taranis’ mighty hammer struck the heavens, sending lightening down to smote the ground, and thunder to stun their ears.

Hope of shelter began to fail the twins when a huge dark shape loomed out of the rain. Changing course, they found it to be a ruined oak tree, its branches bare even though Litha was but two months passed. Ciara raised her cloak enough to tilt her head back before rounding on Ciaran. “Well, brother, this is a fine discovery you’ve made! Are you next going to lead us to a stream, so we can stay dry by drowning in it now?”

It’s sure you’ve a tongue in your head, but no brains to go with it. At least if we can go to the downwind side, we’ll have a bit of shelter to stand in while we get our bearings. Or do you enjoy being pelted by hailstones?”

That silenced his sister, but the thing that amazed them both was the broad, dark crack they found in the mighty tree’s trunk. Ciaran reached into it, up to his shoulder, and found nothing. “I think there’s space in here for one of us, maybe both. Would you like to try getting in, or would you rather I go first?” Ciara had a deathly fear of small spaces, something her brother knew well. “No, you can go first.”

Ciaran found the crack wider at the bottom than the top, but even there, it was more like he was forcing his body through the solid wood than into an open crack. Slipping his cloak off allowed him to finally get himself into the space behind the opening. It was profoundly dark inside, but it was also dry. Better, when he sat down and stretched his legs out, his feet barely touched the opposite side of the hollow. “Come in, sister, it’s dry and there’s plenty of room for both of us.”

Ciara heard her brother’s shout, but the thought of squeezing through the narrow opening filled her with a fear she couldn’t easily overcome. Another stroke of Taranis’ hammer, this one sending a lightening bolt down on a hilltop in front of her, overcame her fear. Unlike Ciaran, she could squeeze through the crack without shedding her cloak. Her brother helped her settle in next to him, and rather than get his own cloak, they wrapped themselves in Ciara’s. Ciaran could feel his sister shivering, and knew it had little to do with the chill from their wet clothing. “I ask you, is this not better than being out in rain?”

It is, but my heart still quivers with fear at the thought of being here. Does it not bother you, brother, to be in this small space?”

Ciaran opened his mouth, ready to deny he felt fear at all, but some deep part of him feared this place. When he answered as levelly as he could. “It does bother me, but I can set aside my fear if it means I’m not battered by hailstones while being soaked to my skin by rain.”

Ciaran should have listened to his fear. The words had just left his mouth when the crack they’d entered through closed without a sound. The noise of the storm gone, they could hear the great tree creaking, sounding so like a high, squeaky voice laughing at them. For a moment, they were stunned into silence. Then, as one person, they flung themselves at the wood, beating it with their fists, scratching at it with their fingernails. And as they tried to force the crack open, both of them screamed and screamed for help.

#

Ruari O’Breoghan’s head felt fit to burst as he untangled himself from the young Scottish serving girl he’d bedded and threw aside the bed covers. “Am I too old to be at the drink?” It was a question that made him want to prove his vigor. After a quick piss, he crawled back into bed for a morning’s roll with the fine young wench still asleep there. She was quite happy to oblige him, and after a long, breathless ride, she took his seed with joy.

Ruari lay for a while, happy to be resting, as his bed partner dressed and left. Then he rose, dressed himself, and made for the kitchen to find something to eat. There was a fine level of chatter going on, but every voice fell silent when he entered the room. That sudden silence told him something had happened, but he knew asking what would get nothing but silent evasion. “Cook, a bowl of porridge and mug of warm cider. Bring both to the small hall.”

The small hall was the oldest part of the complex that house the O’Breoghan’s. Supposedly it had been build by Ruari’s great-grandfather, but whomever built it, it was a dry, warm space on even a raw wet day like this. Cook brought Ruari’s breakfast himself, along with a spare mug of cider for himself. The two men had grown up together, Caolan being the son of a buanadha Ruari’s father had hired to train his warriors. Alone, they fell back into the informality they’d enjoyed as boys. “So, are you free to tell me what is it that the grand lord’s not supposed to know?”

Caolan took a long draw of his cider before answering. “Well, if you’ll be listening to the rumors flying through the hall, there’s many. The biggest is that when the servants went to ask what Diarmuid Mac Giolla Bháin might be wanting for breakfast, not only was his room empty, but the bed hadn’t been slept in. More interesting is the fact that the guards who were at the gate insist they never saw him leave.”

Ruari nearly choked on his mouthful of porridge. “You’re serious now?

I am.”

Well then, who was that telling us tales last night? Never mind. As my Da said, some things, it’s better to not know.”
“Aye, that true. But what of the twins? Will you be calling them back?”

No matter who our guest was, spirit or flesh, their behavior was beyond bearing. No. Staying with old Cillian for a day or two will do them no harm. In any event, I wouldn’t ask anyone to make the walk on a day like today. Besides, with them out of the hall, I’ll be able to have my breakfast without being disturbed.”

Ruari was good to his word, and it wasn’t until the the Sun rose next morning in a clear sky that he sent a servant off to Cillian Mag Aoidh’s cottage. He was brooding over his children’s manners when the whey-faced servant returned to report that the children had never arrived at Cillian’s.

What do you mean, they never arrived? Think, man! Did you see any sign of them? Any tracks?”

And how could I find any sort of sign or track after the storm we had? The only thing that could have left a mark that survived such a rain would be a herd of cattle, and two children aren’t a herd of cattle, no matter how ill-mannered.”

It was true, and Ruari knew it. Still, where could they have gotten to? “They need to be found. Have every servant, every warrior, follow the track to Cillian Mag Aoidh’s. There’s no cliffs along the path, and I can’t see them just walking into the ocean, so look for any place they might have taken shelter.” When no one moved, he rose to bellow at them “Go, blast you all! Or do I have to lead you in a simple search for two missing children?”

For the rest of that day, and all of the next, every member of the O’Breoghan clan, and every household servant, scoured the countryside. But not one sign did they find of the missing twins. On the third day, a cattleherder’s son came to the gate. The boy carried two things: a child’s cloak like the one Ciaran had worn, and a tale of as terror so profound he could not at first tell it. Several flagons of beer loosened his tongue enough to relate how he’d gone to gather missing cattle, only to find the cloak lying beside an ancient oak tree. It had been dead as long he had been alive, but none of the local people would cut it down because it was held to be sacred. But when the boy found the cloak, the tree had been covered in fresh green leaves, like it was a young sapling. It also had something else new: a pair of burls the boy had never seen before. Two burls like a pair of faces screaming from the side of the tree.

Ruari O’Breoghan followed the cattleherder’s son to the tree. It was well away from the path his children should have been following, but on reflection, he realized that on a stormy night, it might have drawn the twin’s attention. He had never visited it before, but one look at the pair of burls protruding from its side told him all he needed to know. Even with their mouths locked forever in mid-scream, and the faces twisted in terror, he knew the faces of his children.

#

No one ever bothered what became known as the Tree of Screams. Even a thousand years later, when black Cromwell’s men made a sport of desecrating Irish holy sites, none of them would approach the towering oak. When it fell in a cyclone, the people who lived nearby hoped the dark curse that had brought it to be was dispelled. Then a sapling sprang from it’s roots, and no one was surprised to find, on it’s side, the same screaming faces.

An honest day’s pay

Paullus Lucius Decimus had been on the move, constantly looking for any sort of work, since the day he’d woken up in the abandoned building. He’d faced worse situations, like when he’d been forced to join the masses of humanity fleeing the Mongol army as it swept across eastern Europe. But even then, no one had asked any questions of a man willing to work at whatever task needed doing.

Now, facing a nation increasingly hostile to outsiders, he wondered if it were time to find somewhere else to live. He’d been in America for well over a century, and even in it’s darkest periods of xenophobia, it hadn’t been as bad as this. More than once, he’d gone to construction companies, landscapers, even restaurants, and been asked to show some form or identification. Before that strange reawakening, he’d had a decent set of false ID papers. But they’d not been on him when he came to in the filthy building.

Having been forced to it too often, he hated to resort to begging. So when Paullus heard that a so-called ‘professional’ renaissance fair was looking for help, he’d been glad for the money. He’d spent only a small part of that time in in his native land, finding it far too depressing to see the descendants of Rome taking pride in rediscovering things their ancestors had taken as a part of their daily lives. He’d spent much of that period in Persia, which had been far more interested in building on the knowledge of Rome than on trying to recreate it.

Still, he had spent enough time among the European peoples to know the clothing he was required to wear as he sold mulled wine and other food was more costume than accurate. It made him money, and he told himself that was all that was important.

Then, on the first day of the weekend, a group claiming to be sword masters began to perform. Paullus heard of them from the other workers, who thought they were fascinating. During one of the times he was allowed away from the stand he manned, he wandered down to watch an exhibition of their skills. What he saw made him stifle a belly laugh. None of the people exchanging mock sword strokes would have last a minute against a real sword master. For that matter, none of them would have fared any better against an average legionnaire. Then one man made a thrust Paullus could have avoided in his sleep, but his opponent allowed it through before staggering and falling to the imaginary wound. Shaking his head, Paullus turned away, ready to walk off. As he took his first step, he heard a loud voice behind him call out.

“We, the Swordmasters of the Kingdom of Trakonia, do hereby challenge any swordsman or swordswoman to face us. Defeat one of us, and we will acknowledge you as a worthy opponent. Defeat two of us, and we deem you an equal.” The voice paused, an all-too-obvious device to build suspense before it continued. “Defeat all three of us, and win five hundred dollars cash!”

Most of the people around him gasped, then cheered, clearly hoping to see a true fight unfold. For Paullus, who would make less than half that amount for working the entire event, it was money he intended to win. He pushed his way through the crowd to find a line of people signing their names to a list before laying down five dollars. So that’s how they make it pay, they demand an entrance fee from those who face them, then pay any winner out of the money they take. Paullus had the money to enter, but it would take everything he had. Nothing ventured, nothing gained was an idea he’d known all his life, so when his turn came to sign up, he did so with a smile on his face.

Paullus and the other contestants were herded into a small, roped off enclosure where they were to watch while they awaited their turn. Each challenger was led out of the space and offered a selection of swords provided by their opponent. That by itself bothered Paullus, who’s familiarity with Rome’s gladiatorial games reminded him that offering a bad sword to an opponent was one of the easiest ways to fix a fight. But as he watched, none of the challengers lost due to a blade the broke under an opportune blow, or warped when used.

No, all of the challengers lost because they were fools who had never handled a sword in deadly earnest. Some strove for follow the forms of dueling, and lost to the men they faced who actually knew the basics of such things. Others tried to simply beat down their opponents, and fell to disciplined sword work like any of the barbarians Paullus had faced. Then, it was his turn.

Paullus left the much emptier enclosure and approached the table covered in different styles of swords. He knew all of the classics lying before him: saber, cutlass, broadsword, rapier and many others. Only one sword caught his eye, and as he picked the gladius up from among the rest, he knew someone had put a great deal of effort into getting at least the form right. It was obviously a wooden replica, far too light to simulate the feel of a real blade. But as he gave it a tentative swing, it felt right in his hand.

He’d watched his opponent as he dispatched challenger after challenger. He was a head taller than Paullus, and had the extra reach to go with that height advantage. He was also a swaggering, over-confident fool. He loved to flip his rapier around in broad, useless flourishes, and he never resorted to any sort of footwork, stay flat on his feet through all the matches so far. This is going to be too easy.

Paullus saw his opponent smile as he walked towards him. Motioning towards the sword in Paullus’ hand, he tried to taunt him. “What, did you pick up a sword to match your manhood?”

Holding the gladius in front of him, Paullus looked it over, then smiled. “No, unlike you, I don’t need to carry a huge sword to make up my lack of manhood.” The ugly red flush that spread across the now scowling face told him he’d hit his mark. “I do have one question before we start: What are the rules of this contest?”

The scowl disappeared. “Rules? Why do you ask about…”

Paullus’ opponent didn’t get to finish his response. Two long steps were all it took for him to cross the space between them. The heavy pommel of the gladius slammed into the other man’s stomach, and he folded as the air whooshed out of him. As he fell to his knees, Paullus switched his weapon around and brought the edge whistling down to stop just short of the kneeling man’s neck. “Because I wanted to know if this means I’ve defeated you.”

There was a moment of stunned silence, then the crowd roared out it’s approval as his opponent dropped his rapier. Paullus didn’t care what they thought. He lifted his eyes to the two men standing on the inside of the open area. “So, which one of you is next?”

They were polar opposites. One, a short, stout man in a knee-length coat of chain mail and armed with a sword like the Crusader’s sword Paullus had once wielded as a mercenary in the Second Crusade. The other was tall and slender, dressed like some 16th Century fop and carrying an epee. They looked at each other, and the tall man stepped forward. “I will face you.”

Paullus hadn’t had a chance to watch this man fight, but as they faced each other, his movements made it clear he possessed more skill with his blade than the last man. Between his longer arms and the superior length of his blade, he had even more advantage in reach. But like many epee users Paullus had faced, he tended to commit himself to every stroke. He dodged two thrusts, waiting for the moment when he moved too far off his center to cover himself. As he did, Paullus shifted inside him, driving his knee into his attackers crotch.

Whatever sound he might have made was drowned out by the groan of sympathetic pain that came from the crowd. This time, Paullus didn’t spare his opponent. He drove the pommel of his sword into the back of the other man’s head, dropping him on the spot. Lifting his eyes, he swept the crowd. “This is how a real sword fight is conducted. There is only one rule: win. Win because the only alternative is death.” Fixing his eyes on the final man, he put every bit of his experience in killing into the cold voice he addressed his final opponent in the sudden silence. “So, sir, will you face me, or do you yield?”

The man in chain mail didn’t so much drop his sword as throw it aside as he shouted “I yield!”

The cheers of the crowd didn’t move Paullus at all. The only thing that truly made him smile was watching as the fat man counted out his five hundred dollars, a fine pay day for a sort day’s worth of fighting. Tomorrow, and for the next few days at least, he would not have to worry about food and lodgings. After that? He slipped his hand into the pocket of the jeans he wore under his costume.

“After that will be after that” he whispered to himself as he walked through the crowd that parted before him.

The Apology

Cheri Paulsen knew she was lucky. Landing the job of Public Relations Specialist at the Consulate-General of Japan hadn’t been her reason for taking a major in Japanese history at Northwestern. But the necessary fluency in Japanese such a degree required had given her an ‘in’ for this job when she’d found jobs in her chosen field few and far between.

So now she took the Metra every weekday from Glenview to downtown, an experience that left her wondering if that was how Japanese office workers felt getting into downtown Tokyo. Probably not. She’d mentioned the idea once to Goto-sama, the actual Consulate-General, and he’d laughed at it. He told her commuter trains in Japan were standing-room-on on weekdays, the people packed in so tight movement was virtually impossible. And seeing as how Goto Eiji had grown up in Tokyo, he would be an expert on such matters.

Even though she was fluent in Japanese, Goto-sama preferred to speak to her in English. When she’d asked why, his answer reflected the blunt pragmatism that seemed to be at his core. “If I only speak English when I am talking to some visitor, how can I possibly stay fluent enough not to embarrass myself?”

Cheri was at the office coffee maker when she saw Goto-sama walk out of the elevator. His office was on the same floor as hers, so that wasn’t amazing. What caught her attention was the stunned, empty look on his face. Something about it worried her, so she approached her boss to find out what was bothering him.

“Goto-sama. Goto-sama. Is something the matter, Goto-sama?”

His face stayed blank for a moment, like her words hadn’t registered with him. Then his head turned towards her and his eyes focused on her face. “Excuse me, Paulsen-san, but I’ve just had a disturbing encounter with one of your countrymen.”

Someone as important as the Consul-General didn’t usually deal with anyone less than an important corporate types. They weren’t the type of people she imagined insulting or even delivering disturbing news to an important official like Goto-sama. She opened her mouth to ask what had happened, when her boss continued.

“The front desk called me, informing me that an American was there asking for the opportunity to apologize. I couldn’t imagine why they’d called me, but Hiru-san insisted I come down to see the individual.” Goto-sama held out a small package neatly wrapped in cloth. It must have been tied together at the top at one time, for the folds still held the rough shape of the knot they’d been tied in. Now they overlapped, covering whatever was inside. “There was a large, elderly gentleman waiting for me, and he actually managed to introduce himself in quite good Japanese. Then he started a short speech that he had evidently tried to memorize, but he lost his way after the first few sentences. What he wanted to do was apologize for something his father had done.” Pointing towards the package, he continued. “His father had been in the Philippines, one of the soldiers guarding Clark Field after the Americans retook it. His father had helped stop a wave of suicide attacks the Japanese defenders staged one night, and the next morning, he and the rest of the soldiers went out to collect trophies. He brought this back.”

Goto-sama slowly uncovered the package, which consisted of a pair of faded photos, some Japanese money, what looked like an old Japanese medal….and peeking from under all that, a tightly-folded, deeply stained white silk cloth covered in kanji characters. “Is that a yosegaki hinomaru?”

Hai.

The fact that Goto-sama had fallen back into Japanese, even for a moment, told Cheri there was something profoundly disturbing about this relic of Japan’s dark past. Laying the photos and other material reverently aside, he carefully unfolded the cloth. More writing came into view, then, the last fold opened revealing a larger, bolder hand’s writing. It was a name that took Cheri’s breath away.

Goto.

Cheri looked at her boss and saw something she’d never seen before: tears. Goto-sama’s attention was focused on the flag. “My grandfather told me about his older brother, a gunsō, a sergeant, in the Imperial Army. How he’d been part of the Manilla garrison, and how the family never knew what had happened to him.” Goto-sama pointed at a shaky line of characters, so inexpertly drawn Cheri couldn’t make them out. “This is my grandfather’s final wish to his older brother. ‘May your military fame be eternal.’ That’s his name, Goto Eiji, just like mine.”

Cheri knew Japanese families put great emphasis on venerating their ancestors. “I’m glad your family has recovered this, Goto-sama, and that they know now what happened to your grandfather’s brother. I know this means a lot to you and your family.”

Hai. Sheri-san, arigatōgozaimashita.” Goto-sama wiped his eyes before looking at her. “I just wonder how many more families in Japan wait like mine for word of a lost ancestor, and how many American families carry the burden like that man for something their ancestor did.”

The nature (and portrayal) of evil.

Is evil relative?

I ask that question after engaging in a debate of the subject with a couple of fellow writers. They insisted that, yes, evil is relative, and writings that portray certain subjects in a positive light should not be censored.

One writer insisted that, at least at first, the Nazi’s weren’t evil. Another insisted that, because many surviving Nazi’s still view what they did in a positive light, then the actions of that regime were not evil.

Personally, I thought both of them were insane.

The first, who styled themselves as a historian, insisted that the German government didn’t really ‘go bad’ until after the war started. They also said that, because the other European powers failed to intervene, they were either complicit in what happened, of at least initially, agreed with what happened.

I remembered history differently.

I remember the violence the Nazi’s used to gain power, and the swift expansion and increasing brutality of that violence once they had achieved power. I know that they moved swiftly to crush any and all opposition parties. I remember how they rounded up those who opposed them. I also remember that they imprisoned people in existing prisons long before the first purpose-built concentration camps opened in 1933. In short, I remember that the Nazi’s were born evil, and were never anything but evil.

The other person, who insisted that because surviving Nazi’s remember their actions in a positive light, they could not have been evil I found to be laughably naive. Mass murderers, from the ‘Son of Sam’ to John Wayne Gacy, rarely if ever speak of what they did as evil. They also pulled out the “Star Wars” card, quoting Obi-Wan Kenobi’s famous ‘from a certain point of view’ line as proof that evil is all in the eyes of the beholder. This person, btw, was a woman, and I was strongly tempted to ask her how she react to a story that portrayed a woman being raped in a positive light.

Perhaps I am old, but I think there are some things that are simply evil, and that they should never, ever be portrayed as anything else. What subject I feel should be regarded that way is a long list. Mass executions. Genocide. The rounding up of large numbers of people for no other reason than to silence opposition/please a fanatical leader’s ego. Torture for any reason. Sexual violence against anyone. There are a few others, but I write this to ask all of you, the readers, what you think?

How do you feel?

Are there subjects that should not be portrayed in a positive light, or is it ‘anything goes’ and be damned to what happens after?

Strange cat tales

Something strange happened today, but to understand why it’s strange, you need to know a bit of history.

I’ve had several what I call ‘hang-around-the-fort’ cats. The name draws from the old days of American Indian culture when there were those who tried to follow the traditional ways of life, and those who who took to the white man’s ways. The former often called the latter ‘hang-around-the-fort’ Indians because they regarded those who took the white man’s path as too lazy to fend for themselves. When applied to cats, it means a stray that’s willing to show up and eat food provided for it, while occasionally allowing itself to be petted. Generally, they maintain a facade of independence, a sort of aloof attachment to those who feed them.

A few have moved beyond that to become near pets, venturing into the house for short periods before making their own way towards the door and the environment they’re familiar with. One of these earned the name “No Paws”. She was one of a surviving pair of female kittens born to a terrible mother cat who tended to lie atop her kittens and kill them. The two were identical dark tabbies except for the fact that one of them had four white paws, and the other didn’t. So when a family member picked the name “Snow Paws” for that one, and the other became “No Paws”. Snow Paws disappeared shortly after maturing (some ‘hang-around’ cats are only temporary visitors), but “No Paws” became something of a fixture, becoming as close to a real pet as possible for a feral cat. She would come in the house, wander around, even lie down and watch TV with everyone else. But eventually, she’d head for the door where she’d sit impatiently waiting for someone to let her out. She hung around for a couple of years, then one day, she just wasn’t around anymore. Where she went to, I don’t know. I never saw her wandering the neighborhood, nor did she delve into my or the neighbor’s garbage. She just left.

Other cats followed her, including the current cat who bears the name “Silly” (the name has a long story attached to it, suffice it to say she earned the moniker). Like most of the earlier cats, “Silly” is a female (why I draw the interest of mostly female cats, I have no clue), and she’s been around for nearly three years now. Occasionally, other cats will show up to try to steal her food (she prefers to eat outside, I guess preferring ‘alfresco’ dining to being around us lowly humans), and a few will decide to stick around short-term in hopes of benefiting from the ‘free food’ us humans put out.

So it was no surprise when a dark tabby showed up a couple of weeks ago. It didn’t stick around long. “Silly” is fairly territorial, and I or someone else will usually hear the howling prequel to a full-on cat fight long before actual combat commences. I was the one who broke this fight up before it started, and outside of watching the cat until it had run away, I didn’t think anything of it.

Then I went out to prepare my own lunch today, and saw a dark cat on the back walk. It was facing away from the house, but in hopes of discouraging it from getting into a conflict with “Silly”, I opened the back door and called out to it. Usually, the response to this is the cat sprinting away as fast as it can go, but not this time. No, this cat raised its head, looked at me….then ran towards the back door. It came up, stopped at the bottom of the screen door, and stared up at me while letting out plaintive meows.

That’s when I noticed it’s markings. They were the same as “No Paws”, and the cat was rather large, just like her. And it sat there, staring up at me like it knew me and expected me to let it in.

“No Paws” was a full-grown adult cat when she disappeared nearly twenty years ago, so it’s impossible that this is her. So what’s going on? Is this someone’s pet turned out? Or is this some distant descendant of the cat that went MIA all those years ago?

For those who wander the deep

[An homage to one of my favorite authors, Patrick O’Brian.]

HMS Adder took a sudden, lurching roll that almost threw her commander across the low-ceilings space that was technically his great cabin. Lieutenant Howard Penvesal, Commander only because he commanded the tiny old sixteen gun brig, had been in the midst of fair copying his rough log into the official one when it happened, and even without being on deck, he knew the cause. Adder was beating her way through another in a string of late winter gales the inshore squadron blockading Lorient had endured, trying to find the rest of the Royal Navy. A vicious storm two nights before had blown in just at the end of the last dog watch, dropping visibility so much the bowsprit was invisible to those manning the wheel. When it had cleared, not a light from of the other ships, not even the massive stern lantern of HMS Ajax, command ship of the squadron, was visible. It had been over a week since the clouds had thinned enough for Penseval to attempt to make an observation of even the Sun, and between the cross-grained seas and in-shore currents, his best guess of his location was just that, a guess.

So Adder scudded along under a minimum of storm canvas, her tops filled with man who’s eyes watched for the first sign of rocks that might send her and them to the bottom. They were relieved at each bell, but how long could they, and the ship they manned, feel her way through this ugly weather before their luck ran out? Howard pushed such dark speculation aside as he moved the log back to the center of the shelf he used as a writing desk. “At least the bloody ink didn’t over set.” he muttered to himself as he took up his pen and looked at what he’d written so far.

3 March, 1810, strong gales ENE, seas heavy. Ship working heavy, speed five knots, course three points W of NW. People again employed mending storm damage.”

Should he write about the thing that had taken him on deck at first light? And if he did, what could he say that made any sense?

#

Dawn, if the gradual fading of a pitch-black night into something approaching a dim gray rain swept reality could be called that, came two hours after Howard had cast himself into his hammock. In a small ship like Adder, even the commanding officer stood watch, and with the dirty weather they’d been fighting, Howard had taken the graveyard watch. The night before, Masters Mate Lucas Simmons, his second in command, had taken the same watch, so named because it stretched from midnight to four in the morning. Howard’s exhaustion was so profound he had no memory of throwing off his tarpaulin jacket, nor of climbing into his hammock, but the shout of “Ship off the larbiard bow!” had awoken him as surely as a bucket of cold Atlantic water dumped over his face. He rolled out of his swinging bed, grabbed his telescope from the rack by the door, and charged onto deck.

What he found there was not the motion of a crew moving to either intercept a prize, nor to flee a superior French ship (and nearly every ship the French might send out was superior to the Adder), but a crew staring in dumb amazement to larboard. Simmons stood by the lee rail, eyes fixed ahead and mouth gaping, as if he’d been turned to stone. Howard rushed across the quarterdeck to get clear of foot of the mizzen sail that blocked his view…and found the source of his crews consternation.

It would not have been visible if not for the white bow wave its knife-like bow threw off. The gray shape, easily longer than Ajax, blended almost seamlessly with the sea and clouds. How it moved, Howard had no clue, for not one sail was visible, nor any masts. Yet move it did, with a terrible speed, far faster than even the smugglers Adder often intercepted. Staring at it, Howard realized it was not just moving with great speed, it was moving against the wind. But the thing that froze his heart was the ensign streaming from its stern: the French tricolor.

How could the French have built and launched such a ship with nary a hint of its existence? No gun ports broke its sides, but the fact that the French possessed a ship like this meant it was only a matter of time before they gave it cannons. But how did it move? It clearly was not a clanking steam-powered paddle-wheeler like the one Howard had heard now operated in the Clyde, so what drove it through the waters with such rapidity? The unknown ship and Adder were angling towards each other, and he currently possessed the weather gauge, so Howard decided to see if he could intercept the stranger and find out how it operated.

“Make sail, all hands make sail! Main and topsail! Course five points North of NW. Let’s see if we can take Admiral Cartwright a fine prize to make up for our absence.”

The bellowed command was followed by a moment of silence, as if the crew could not believe he proposed to set about the gigantic French ship, then Simmons took up the cry. “All hand make sail! Top men lay aloft!” The bosun’s brass voice took up the call, his whistle shrilling out its command, and the men sprang to action. The ratlines were soon dark with men, while others gathered to sheet home the lines as the sails came free. Adder was no crack ship, Howard never having seen the need to whip sails out in seconds, but the crew did her justice, casting gaskets off and bringing the lines home to set her sails taught and drawing to their peak.

The old ship responded to the sudden increase in thrust. She heeled slowly over and began to pick up speed, her rigging moaning as the extra strain came on it. But she breasted the waves and took to her task like the stolid old war horse she was. Howard turned his attention back to the Frenchman. He slid through the water, and from the lack of any crew moving about, he was seemingly oblivious to the existence of Adder. Were his lookouts blind, or did he just not regard the ancient brig as a threat? Time to show him the Adder had teeth. “Gun crews, larboard side!”

Howard wasn’t rich enough to buy his own powder like some officers, so his crew had only fired the six-pounders they now swarmed about a handful of times. But he had conducted regular gun drills, running the unwieldy monsters in and out in to memorize the actions needed to service them. Now, though, they ran their pieces in with deadly intent, the gun captain drawing the tompons as others raised the gun port or took up their assigned place. The master gunner moved down the line, placing a lite tub of slow match beside each gun, ready for the moment when the order to fire came. He came to the last gun, then looked across the narrowing line of water.

“Sir, where should the guns be pointed? She ain’t got no riggin’ to shoot away, and if we hull’er, how’ll we prove to the Admiral we done sunk somethin’ like that?”

It was a question Howard hadn’t thought of, but as he glanced at the approaching French ship, he could only think of one place to aim the guns. “Whether we can prove we sank a French man-of-war or not isn’t important. Gun crews, aim for the waterline! A hole between wind and water’s a better argument to surrender than anything else I know of.” Down on the gun deck, men cheered and plied their crows, shifting their aim downward to hammer the French hull where it would do the most damage. Howard watched the last barrel shift and looked at his target. They were close now, well within the range of even the Adder’s meager guns. But they wouldn’t enjoy that position for long. The speed of their opponent was drawing it ahead. Already, its bow was beyond the forwardmost reach of his bow gun. Howard drew in a breath, ready to shout out his order to fire, but a voice like God speaking from the heavens themselves rang out from the French ship, interrupting him.

Navire inconnu, identifiez-vous. »

Howard knew no French, but the challenging tone of the voice made it clear this was no friendly greeting. Time to act. “From the bows, fire as you bear!” The bow gun roared out, and the mist hanging in the air hazing as the ball passed through it, leaving a trail a blind man could follow. He watched as the ball hit, but did not hear the sound of its impact as the the next gun in line fired. Each gun, down the line, discharged its deadly content, and all of them but the Number 9 gun stuck home at or slightly above the French waterline. Number 9 fired as Adder took a freak wave on her bow, pitching the ball high so it struck what looked like a boat stowed on the Frenchman’s deck. That was the only visible damage, the other balls bouncing off with no trace that they had struck beyond a slight depression in the French hull. Could this giant ship be made of metal? The thought flew through Howard’s mind, but he had no time to reflect upon it. They were approaching the stern of the French ship, and even if she were made of metal, a raking fire down the length of her hull would do just as much damage to her as to any other ship. The gun crews were working their pieces, swabbing, loading and ramming. Number One, the bow gun called Old Tom by its crew, was already run out for another shot, and Howard shouted for their attention. “Hold until she presents her stern to us, then kick her in the ass men!”

That drew another cheer from his crew, but their actions had also drawn the attention of the French ship. Men, dressed in strange, bright orange clothing ran exposed across the other ships deck, making Howard wish he could draw his guns and load with grape. No time for that now. The stern of the French ship approached, and the last of Adder’s guns were out and ready to fire. “Helmsman, lay us as close across her stern as you can.”

Again, the mighty, inhuman voice echoed from the French ship. “Cesser vos actes hostiles, ou vous serez tiré sur! »

Howard saw the Frenchman’s wake, a turbulent stream of white water far more churned up than any wake he had ever seen from a ship, then in dark letters, a name appeared as the stern came fully into view: “Prairial”. Adder began her turn, and as she did, Howard saw something move on the French ship. A single man moved it, a long, thin barrel like some immense swivel gun, and it tracked the Adder like a line connected the two ships. Howard was aware of his own forward gun crew, heaving on their piece to bring it to bear, and wondered how a single man could think his puny gun could match eight six pounders. Again, the disembodied voice rang across the water “Armes libres, feu à volonté!”. The gun Howard had been watching bloomed fire, and a steady “Boom! Boom! Boom!”, far faster than any fire he had ever heard, came to him as it did. And with each report, an explosion shook the Adder. He felt her timbers shudder and knew Adder could not take much more of this punishment. “Starboard your helm, hard over! House your guns, man your sheets!” Adder was no racing yacht, but under the urging of her commander and crew, she managed to spin nearly in her own wake. Whether because the sudden maneuver threw their aim off, or they simply didn’t care to press their advantage, the French stopped firing Howard had one final glimpse of the French colors, then a squall swept down, drawing a veil between the two ships.

That chance event saved the Adder. They had managed to plug the ugly holes blown in her side, and splice the shredded rigging. But how could he explain it all in the log? Perhaps the best explanation was the least. Inking his pen, Howard wrote “Encountered and exchanged fire with unidentified French vessel in heavy squall.” It wasn’t a lie, and none of his crew would contradict him, so Howard sanded the page before closing the log on his account of the strange event with a clear conscious.

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As the frégate de surveillance Prairial sliced through another squall on her way to a major refit at Brest, Capitaine de frégate Pierre Fosse leaned back and contemplate his computer. He had been updating his ship’s log, and had reached the point where he and his ship had had their strange encounter. Their surface radar had been functioning properly, at least as far as any of his crew could tell, but it hadn’t picked up the strange vessel until it was nearly on top of them. And even when it had been reported, the lookout manning the camera had hesitated to report what he saw. Pierre understood his reluctance to speak as soon as he saw the image on the monitor. He remembered once seeing the ship used in filming “Master and Commander” and marveling at the detail that had gone into it. But that was nothing compared to what their surveillance camera had shown them. Filth drooled down what he could only guess were the heads. Men rushing about in rough tarpaulin jackets to haul on ropes. And the cannons, stubby little brutes that would have been comical if not for their jerking tracking motions. Pierre had warned them over the loud hailer, but could not believe the crew of the other ship would be insane enough to actually fire on him. Then, they did, and became a deadly earnest threat.

The Prairial still pumped, her outer hull cracked in several spots where cannon balls had struck, but by luck, none of his crew had been injured. He had viewed the video from the F.2’s gun camera, seen the holes blasted in the mysterious vessel’s side, men sent flying by the impact of large pieces of wood, and had wondered if she’d survived. But the same video also contained an image of the ship’s stern, where her name was clear to read: Adder. The Royal Navy was not as free with its current military information now as it had been before opting out of the EU, but their archives were just a satellite link away. Adder was there, listed as a ‘sloop of war’, but also listed as ‘Sold out of service, broken up.’ in 1815. So what he had seen could not have been a two hundred plus year old ship lovingly restored. Nor could it have been an illusion, a figment of his imagination. He looked in the corner, where a smooth iron ball rested in a cradle of sandbags. It had been recovered from the wreckage of the #1 launch, and that was why Pierre could not simply gloss over the incident.

He had not seen fit to contact headquarters and report the encounter, hoping perhaps to come up with some way to explain what had happened by the time they arrived in Brest. But what could he say that would not make him look insane? What entry could he make in the ship’s log that would not read like fiction? His crew still spoke of the strange event, and Pierre knew they would be calling their families to relay their own take on the bizarre fight as soon as they were in range of shore-based cell service. There was no other way than to report what had happened. Pierre leaned forward and began to type.

“0635, radar reports unidentified contact 900 meters bearing 095. Surveillance camera revealed contact to be unidentified sailing vessel, rigged as a brig and possessing 16 gun ports. Vessel warned to identify itself by loud hailer. Vessel deployed cannons and took frégate de surveillance Prairial under fire. Seven balls struck hull causing minor damage, one ball struck #1 launch, destroying it. Ordered crew to action stations surface and warned unidentified vessel to cease hostile actions. Vessel observed preparing to fire on Prairial again, permission was given to return fire with #2 F.2 cannon. Multiple hits observed, extent of damage unknown due to vessel breaking off attack and fleeing into storm where radar could not maintain accurate fix. Based on markings observed on hull, hostile vessel is believed to have been HMS Adder, a Royal Navy sloop of war reported broken up in 1815.”

Pierre read the entry, then saved it to the onboard server. His chronometer said it was nearly lunch time, so with a final click, he secured the computer, stood and stretched. With a final shake of his head, he left his cabin.

I have given them the facts. Now it is for those higher up the chain of command to figure out what happened.”