For me personally, it has been a busy few weeks… but we are nearly ready to continue with our story of an American prisoner of war during the War of 1812. Before the story goes on later this week… I am publishing what has been written already. I hope you have enoyed so far. Tell your friends if you do. Cheers.
The cold mist was being siphoned from the valley by the rising tide. Specks of white sheep began to appear on the hillside as the morning light grew. The USS Argus creaked and rode the soft waves, its anchor dropped between a tiny island and the British coast.
John Stephens rested his tired back against the foremast, rubbing his temples as he stared at his shined leather boots. His stand at watch was uneventful save a couple of drunken fights spilling onto the fore deck from the quarters down below.
Despite the quiet, Stephens was frustrated, like most of the Marines were. They were trained for war. They were trained to meet the enemy hand to hand and cut him down. What they were involved in across the ocean was drunken stupidity at its best, piracy at its worst. And it all happened so quickly.
He had finished his training at New Haven just before Christmas. His squad was posted on the Argus in late March. At first, Stephens was overjoyed by the post. The brig’s command and control of the coast were becoming legendary, as were its Limey captures. He had waited so long to get involved in the war, and he was proud to have joined this particular ship’s crew. He was even willing to die to defend its captain. Simply, Stephens was a perfect Marine.
But since breaking through the British blockade of New York in June, Captain Allen had become drunk with power and the crew became drunk on European port wine. Instead of patroling American waters, Allen had negotiated for the opportunity to raid British supply ships coming from the Old World. After a brief stop Brittany in July, where Stephens met his first prostitute while ashore, the Argus spent the next four weeks, Stephens reckoned, attacking and pillaging nearly twenty ships. After cleaning out the holds of each of them, the captain ordered each ship put to fire. The crew, hoping for riches and glory, gladly agreed to help assuage the captain’s thirst for flames and power. Stephens and the rest his fellow Marines were forced to watch the thick black smoke choke out the sunlight. There was no honour in what they were doing. But as military men, there was also no honour in openly disobeying, or even disagreeing with your ship’s captain.
As his guard shift drew to a close with the sunrise, Stephen thought about recent events. Just two days earlier, they intercepted a transport heading into Plymouth. Captain Allen easily overtook the much slower sloop and ordered the Marines to board the vessel. With a crew made up of old men and young boys, the ship surrendered without incident. Captain Allen forced all of them into the water and ordered them to start swimming for shore. The roar of applause was deafening when the crew discovered 76 cases of sweet Portuguese eporto in the ship’s hold. Stephens looked to Smith, another Marine, on his left. The lack of emotion in Smith’s eyes spoke volumes. None of the Marines drank. Ever. That fact made them the only logical choice to break up what would be dozens of fights that night.
Most of the crew remained inebriated since making way from Plymouth. The Argus clung to the Cornwall and Devonian coasts on their way to the Irish Sea. Stephens was happy to see light rising over the green hills to the east. Hopefully, today, the crew would finally sober up and they can get back to the service of war the Marines so craved, and the service he thought they deserved.
The light hit him before the sound did.
For what seemed like minutes to him, the world went purple. It was only a split second, but the colour enveloped him. He could have sworn there was a thickness to it. The light provided safety and warmth like a blanket. But, then, it was gone. When the crash shook his ears, it forced him to his feet, his rifle in hand and reaching for his powder horn. The ship buckled and rolled on the sea as the sound of the explosion caused the ship to come to life. As more and more crew members spilled onto the deck, Stephens was grabbed by his gunnery sergeant demanding to know what was going on. Stephens ignored him, his eyes fixed on the valley. He watched the blackness cover the green, spill over the beach, then swarm across the ship.
The men of the USS Argus stood with mouths agape as thousands of crows flew past and over their ship — their wings making the morning sky black as night. The birds crossed over the island, and when the last birds disappeared over what the stolen British charts called Lundy, the world went silent. They were gone as quickly as they appeared.
II. Prison Cell
He could still taste the acrid gun power on his tongue. No matter how much water he drank, he could not get rid of the bitter taste. The cell was damp and cold, but then again, everywhere in this place was damp and cold. A thin green mixture of moss and mould clung to the walls. A small window to the outside world told Stephens the sun had been out today and that it was now setting. It was early evening.
Smith laid on a pile of straw to his left. His right arm was mangled and infected. Fever had gripped him and Stephens knew he was as good as dead. For Smith, another Marine from the Argus, dead was better than living in this prison. Marines die in battle, not in jail. Stephens agreed. He just wished he was injured too.
At 24-years-old, he was the absolute picture of health. Other than occasional headache, Stephens could not remember the last time he was ill. He grew up on the Connecticut coast in small shipping village called Stony Creek. His father owned a pilot business helping merchant frigates negotiate the coast between New Haven and Mystic. The water was dotted with tiny islands, sand bars and rocks making shipping dangerous and sometimes costly. As a boy, Stephens would row from island to island, rock to rock scouting for his father.
When he was 13, a British schooner ran into the rocks trying to avoid a fallen tree in a channel. The cargo was lost and the angry merchant captain sought and attacked his father that very night. Save some bumps and bruises, his father came away from the altercation fine, but young Stephens blamed himself. It was his job, after all, to find the obstructions and tell his father. He had gone fishing for blues instead scouting the chanel. He had failed his father, his family and himself. His father said nothing when he apologised for his mistake, his left eye swollen shut. He merely shook his head, turned on his heel, and went to his bed chamber.
Stephens, heartbroken, promised himself he would not fail him again.
And he didn’t fail. He would spend hours and hours on the water. He memorized every rock, channel and tree on the coast. At night, he read books about the sea – naval histories of the British, about trading with the Caribbean and Spice Islands. He listened to seaman telling stories of the naval battles in far-off seas. Ten years after his father was beaten, he grew into the best pilot in the Thimbles, most likely in all of New England. Standing at more than six feet tall, his chest was built like a cannon barrel thanks to all the rowing. He was more than prepared to take over the business when he informed his family he had chosen to join the Marines. He wanted to serve the heralded corps and protect their precious coastline from the British naval invaders. He had first become interested in the Marines after reading about their defeat of the devil pirates during the Barbary Wars. He admired their skill, their commitment and dedication. Most of all, he was inspired by their honour to protect their ship and country at all costs – even with their own lives.
But being held in this prison in the middle of a British swamp, the situation made his quest for honour a bit hard to swallow at the moment. Service under Captain Allen made all his beliefs hard to swallow. The Marine Corps were built to protect the oceans, not ravage them. They defeated the pirates and liberated Tripoli. They were not supposed to act like them. Allen made a laughing stock of that honour. The minute he burned that first ship off Brittany, Allen was unfit to lead in the eyes of Stephens and other Marines. His arrogance was out of control.
Ultimately, it was the captain’s arrogance that allowed them to end up in this dank, damp cell.
Stephens put his face in his hands. He heard Smith let out another groan as he exhaled deeply. A hum started just beyond the window. The sun was gone, leaving the dim light of dusk behind. The hum got louder and louder, more intense. With a purple flash, Stephens was blinded for a moment. When his sight returned to him, Penn-Ruw stood before him. Although he did not know it, Stephens was staring at the king of the pixies.
The ball smashed through the rigging, tearing the sails, ripping apart the fore deck before it splashed into the water on the other side. The helmsman, white-knuckled and holding the boat against the wind, was the first to notice the cannon shot took Captain Allen’s left leg with it as well.
It had been so different just an hour before.
When sailing in the Irish Sea, the bright sunshine and warm southerly wind was an omen of good things. Following the scare of crows on the morning previous, the crew and captain were quiet, nervous as they sailed north towards Dublin. Stephens was warming his face when he heard the call of ship astern. The coast was just off to his right, but the brig on horizon was far more important. Gauging the wind and the distance, he knew there was nothing to worry about. A British patrol boat would be loaded down with iron hoping to sink pirates in these waters. Despite the declaration of war between countries, the Argus was not carrying its 32-pound guns or its 12-pound long gun. It was fast and light. It could easily outrun the other brig.
Then he heard Master Levy call to come about. He must have been hearing things. There was no way the captain would square off against the British navy. Not here. Not today. With all the barrels of stolen port in the hold, should they be captured, the entire ship’s crew could easily swing for piracy. There was no way the Argus was picking a fight.
As the boat swung away from the coast, turning into the wind, Stephens felt his stomach drop. Just like the evening so many years ago when he was younger and his father was beaten, he felt bloodshed was coming. But it wasn’t his fault this time; it was that fool Allen who was inviting this carnage through his stupidity. Looking to his left and right as his fellow Marines joined him on the deck, he did the only thing he could. He began strapping up his leathers and packing the rifles. Bayonets fixed, eyes slitted on the now approaching boat, the Marines on the Argus prepared for war.
Stephens was right about the guns – the Argus’ lack of them and the Brits’ adept use of theirs.The cannon fire ripped the sheeting and rigging to tatters in minutes. They were hopelessly outgunned by the British brig. As they pounded the port side of the Argus, Stephens waited for the Brits to draw closer in order to board them. The opposing force was outfitted with a detachment of the Scottish Royal Marines. Stephens always wondered how a man could fight in a dress, but he also knew the Scots were deadly accurate with both rifle and blade. When he heard the shriek of the captain as his leg was reduced to a bloody stump, he knew he would get to know the Scots very well. It would be his first real battle. It would be his first real test.
Standing on crumbling bridge, staring down the barrels of all those guns, the newly minted second lieutenant, who was placed in the charge after the bloody decapitation by cannon fire of the first lieutenant, called a halt before the Scots could throw their grappling hooks. The hoisted white flag ended the battle and the Argus.
With their desired hand-to-hand combat stolen from them, eight of his fellow Marines died that morning off the Welsh coast amidst the gun fire, not honour. Their bodies were tossed into the sea and he and the rest were shackled and made to sit amongst the spilt blood on the foredeck. The captain, who somehow had survived, was given the courtesy of his quarters as the HMS Pelican towed the captured American brig to Plymouth. The two day journey was marked by two things: the dull moaning of the wounded and dozens of crows that sat perched amongst the remnants of the rigging.
Upon reaching Plymouth, Captain Allen was wheeled off the ship and into Plymouth. As he was taken, his moans were replaced with guttural shouts at the black birds that remained overhead.
“A Pelican!” he screamed. “You did not tell me a crow would be defeated by a pelican. You promised me, Malan Bran. You promised me!” When he disappeared down a nearby lane, the crows, as if on cue, took wing and flew up into the dark moors overlooking the town.
Still shackled, Stephens and the rest of the men of the Argus were taken by wagon to Dartmoor. Stephens hoped he was being held as a Marine, not a pirate. He was not ready to die as of yet, especially not by the hangman’s noose.
With a tiny bearded man standing before him, Stephens felt he may be asleep – or, maybe, finally dead – in his cell. He was dressed all in green and stood just under three feet tall. He smelled of evergreen and he had an almost mossy complexion, as if he was more tree than… well, man. But he clearly was not a tree, Stephens thought as he rubbed his eyes.
Then the tiny green man began to speak. The moans of his cellmate drowned out the raspy voice of the pixie king as he went on to tell Stephens how he was there to help him.
He told the young Marine he was unwittingly brought into an ancient war. It was not the war between the British and its former colonies that Stephens was caught up in; he was in the middle of another war. This war was for control of the Underworld and, more importantly, control over contact with the world of the humans. Penn-Ruw was the king of the pixies, and they were in a constant struggle against the faeries. The faeries had descended down from the North and immediately opposed his people. The pixies thought the humans were kind and tried to help them protect nature and themselves from evil. The faeries wanted to control the humans for their own gain. They were mischievous and cruel. The faeries used the help of a shadow force of crows to carry out their evils plans.
He went on to say the stakes of this war were much more than just control over the humans. At the heart of the Underworld, its true treasure and value was the Shard. It was a solid piece of clear, glasslike stone said to be as old as the world itself. Penn-Ruw said the Maker entrusted his people with its protection, but the jealous faeries wanted the shard for their selfish gain.
Stepping closer to the much taller Stephens, Penn-Ruw held out his hand, opening it slowly to show him a small piece of crystal. As the Marine moved closer to see, it began to glow a soft, purplish light. As he looked at it more, the light increased in brightness and began filling the cell. In the background, Smith’s groans stopped. The wounded cellmate fell into his first comfortable sleep since being brought to Dartmoor. Stephens felt a strong feeling build from deep in his stomach. Despite not eating properly for days, he felt his strength returning, even growing. He stood from his cot, revitalised, powerful and amazed.
The pixie told him more about the shard – the power source that his people were waging a war to protect. The substance emulated the one true strength of every man. Its light immediately weighed and measured whoever gazed upon, and lifted his to new heights of power. If that man was pure of heart, purity would reign throughout his body. If a man, however, was cold and evil, the evil would be amplified making him more than dangerous. The faeries wanted the power of the crystal and would stop at nothing to get it. Penn-Ruw then told Stephens the faeries recently used the crystal to manipulate the ship’s captain. Through his mind’s eye, Stephens immediately saw the crows. He remembered when they flew from the hillside over the ship while they were moored off Lundy, their nesting in the rafters as they were being towed, their escape into the woods when the captain was wheeled away after arriving in Plymouth.
More concerning was that he questioned the captain’s actions throughout his time on the Argus, but his rank as Marine prevented him from raising the alarm. He thought Allen mad for turning to fight the British in a battle everyone knew they could not win. Was it possible Captain Allen was being manipulated by a bird? Was some evil hoping they would lose?
He conceded anything was possible as he looked down at the mossy, little man holding a bit of glowing purple glass.
But for John Louis Stephens, a lieutenant in the United States Marines, he knew it was more than a piece of glass. He felt everything he ever believed in being brought to the surface. He pride, his commitment, his honour – all of it coursed through veins like a tidal wave of power and strength.
Penn-Ruw asked Stephens to help defeat the evilness that had come to rest at the prison. He asked Stephens to lead his fellow sailors; the men he knew to be good and true, and lead them out of Dartmoor and take the devil crows with them. In a flash, Penn-Ruw disappeared. Stephens stood up, his chest strong and broad. He smiled as he watched Smith sleeping soundly in his cot. He began to think about how to gather the sailors and lead them from Dartmoor.
Outside the window of the cell, Malan Bran has been startled by the undeniable purple glow from inside the prison. Taking flight, he flew toward the centre courtyard. In the early morning mist, he spied a gigantic red-haired man chopping wood. He landed near the man, and began to put his plan into action.