Carteret, 23 December

My Dear Rackham,

It is over. The matter with poor Robards is settled, and the future of Garnsey, whatever it will be, will not unfold under his rule, and it will do so without me. I feel relief, sadness, and not a little guilt: many lives could have been saved if I had been a little smarter.

Best to tell it all as it happened, I suppose. At the time of my last letter I had just fled back to Carteret from Stockport. The attack came four days later, on the fifteenth of December. We had expected it, of course, and based on everything I had seen at the room in the residence where Robards confronted me, we girded ourselves for an assault from both land and sea.

We did not fear defeat; we only worried how we might repel the attack with a minimum of bloodshed. Robards had no shortage of ships, but who could he get to crew them? He could choose loyalty – the Brotherhood, those in his circle – but in that number were precious few sailors. Or he could choose skill, selecting from the numerous sailors of assorted nationalities who were stranded in the port district. But, you will recall, the Brotherhood had first been established to quell unrest at the docks – those seamen and merchant captains would prove reluctant allies at best. On our side we had a fully equipped New Columbian ironclad with a well-trained (and rather irate) crew. On land, he may have had an advantage in numbers, though when it came to seasoned military men, perhaps half of our original company remained loyal to him, whereas the other half, men like Jacobs and Sharma, had found their way to Carteret one way or another.

We set up some defensive embankments at key points in town, using the buildings when we could and constructing barriers where need be. We sent out scouts so as to have some warning of the enemy’s approach. The Tortoise Council discussed at great length the importance of restraint, of ending the fighting as quickly as possible, ideally by killing or capturing Robards himself, thereby neutralizing the effect of his Ability on his men.

How naïve we were.

When not in council meetings I busied myself with some actual doctoring – it had been some time since I had used those particular skills! I tended to a smattering of ailment and injuries, but mainly gathered supplies and laid out tables and cots in the main room of The Weeping Tortoise to serve as our infirmary. That is where I was when one of our scouts returned, reporting that Robards was on the move. A ship had been sighted leaving harbor and heading toward the south of the island; the Sigsbee lifted anchor and positioned itself at the edge of the small bay that Carteret sits upon, its broad side cannons ready to fire. Van Dyke and I climbed to the church belfry, the highest point in town, to survey the situation. His job was to call out enemy positions and co-ordinate our movements; I had nothing to do until the infirmary was needed.

From our vantage we could see a merchant vessel come into view, inching around a peninsula to the southeast of us. Campbell had instructions to fire upon any opposing ships, aiming to cripple rather than sink them if possible. But after a couple of minutes, the Sigsbee still had not fired.

“Strange,” muttered Van Dyke. He peered through a spyglass to get a better look at the approaching vessel, then lowered it and said grimly, “It is unarmed.”

“What on earth would be the point of that?” I exclaimed. “We know he has an impressive collection of artillery. Could it be concealed?”

He looked again. “I do not think so. That ship is not even big enough to handle some of those pieces in any case.”

“A floating bomb, then? A hold stuffed with gunpowder?”

“The Sigsbee could easily sink it before it got close enough for that.”

“What, then,” I cried, exasperated. “Where is the damned artillery?!”

On cue, from a quarter mile or so inland, came a boom. The shell hit our church squarely, though thankfully not at the base of the steeple, or that may have been the end of us right there. But then came another, and another. These were not aimed at the church, but at the piers. Carteret’s modest fishing fleet disappeared under billows of smoke, but more to the point, the dock where the Sigsbee put in caught fire.

Then, finally, I realized what was happening. The ship was a decoy. The whole notion of an assault from the sea was a ruse to make sure that the Sigsbee was positioned against that threat, and not positioned to defend the town. It could reposition now – Campbell was less a fool than me, and was already doing so. But by the time it was ready to counter-fire against Robards’ artillery, the bombing would have achieved its purpose, softening our defenses and paving the way for his men to storm the town. The fighting would already be in the streets.

And why were we caught by this trap? Because of me. Because I had seen a map and some scribblings on a chalkboard, and not stopped for a moment to question why Robards had ever allowed me see them, if he already suspected me. He sat in the corner of that room, let me look around before he made himself known, and then, instead of shooting me in the back, talked for a while, like a villain in a penny-dreadful. And I, perhaps fancying myself a hero in the same, was not in the least suspicious that I was being played.

If Van Dyke had the same realization at that moment, he was kind enough not to voice it, but rather led the way down from the belfry and out the (now decimated) front of the church. Three different messengers converged on him and he gave them diverse orders before hurrying off on his own errand. I hastened back to the Tortoise and my makeshift infirmary, where hard work was now certain to follow.

As a result I can only relate the larger developments of the engagement second-hand. But I have seen too many battles to relish the task of re-telling the story of this one; leave the fevered post-facto analysis of tactics to the armchair-generals. Like many battles, the outcome was decided mere minutes from the outset, and the ensuing hours comprised only the slow, bloody realization of an inevitable conclusion. In this case, the deciding factor was that one shell from the bombardment hit our defensive barricade at the north road square on. Three men were wounded; two more were needed to get them to me at the infirmary, and so when Robards’ forces came down that road what resistance remained had to fall back almost immediately. In short order Robards pressed forward to the town square, rendering our perimeter blockades useless. Carteret is not large; from the square he could strike out at any position, and our own forces on opposite sides of the town had no way to communicate or coordinate, let alone reach each other.

Late in the day, I was busy at work in the infirmary and could only guess from the grim faces of messengers and the number of casualties on my cots that the situation was dire. Van Dyke burst in with half a dozen men close behind, clearly making a fast retreat. He looked at me. “He’s here,” he said.

I had been wearing the ward, but now removed it from around my neck, knowing that doing so would save my life, hoping that it might provide me some way to help in a final stand here, if here is where it was to be. But as soon as she saw it, Rachel’s eyed widened –

– and now I must pause and take an extended and regrettable detour from my narrative. Were I a novelist, I would certainly have taken pains to introduce the character of Rachel to you, the reader, in the previous chapter, so that meeting her again now, she would require no introduction. But the fact of the matter is that at the time of my last letter, though I certainly had met her, the curiosity of her character was only one of many miscellaneous details about the situation here in Carteret that I neglected to mention due to lack of space. Had I only known the role she would come to play I would have brought her to your attention sooner!

When I first saw her, I took her for a foreign professor, visiting Elizabeth College from somewhere on the Continent. She had not been one of those in the prison, but had managed to escape the sacking of the College and eventually reunite with her colleagues at Carteret. It was clear that she did not speak our language, and it did not seem that anyone else spoke hers (whatever that may have been, for she never spoke, save to introduce herself by her given name only). That was the first unusual thing about her, for between myself, Van Dyke, Sanders, and a couple of others from the College, we commanded fluency in a great many languages. The second unusual thing was her age – she had the white-and-grey hair and eye-wrinkles of an elderly woman, but had the posture, complexion, and overall heartiness of someone in her thirties.

I had meant to ask Sanders about her, the same way I had meant to ask him about any number of things, and also meant to ask Campbell fifty more questions about Segismund, and meant to thoroughly debrief Van Dyke and who knows who else until finally all my questions had been answered or at least heard, but, as ever, there wasn’t the time, and finding out more about Rachel had seemed far less important than many other matters. At any rate, to bring us back to the story, she had, by means of silent gesture, indicated to Sanders that she had some skill in first aid, and was therefore assigned as one of my assistants in the infirmary. While she had no knowledge of medicine, she was indeed adept at basic care, and her intuition as to which patients required immediate attention and which did not was always correct.

So then: I took out the ward, and as soon as she saw it, Rachel’s eyes widened. That same moment, someone was shouting at us from outside to lay down our arms and come out peacefully. Rachel took two steps closer to me and spoke in a language I did not understand, and yet seemed strangely familiar. Jacobs (he was one of the men who had just retreated here with Van Dyke) answered the demand for us to surrender with some well-placed rifle shots from an upper-storey window, and the return fire was quick to follow. Everyone there who was not already prone on a table or cot fell to the ground for cover. Rachel crawled closer to me, said something again, and extended her hand. Her face was grim, her intention unmistakable: she wanted me to give her the ward.

The fighting intensified; only later I learned that Jacobs had been wounded, giving the attackers the space they needed to storm the door. It was closed and barred but with a span of wood meant to deter passing vagrants, not hold fast against a determined assault. We had very little time – and I had to decide to what to do. I was paralyzed with indecision, fear, concern for my casualties … in that awful moment Sanders crawled into view.

“Crane,” he wheezed – he was not a man accustomed to physical exertion – “Perhaps she can … she is …” – he paused – “… She is from Essen,” he finished.

I did not yet understand. “She is not Saxonian …” I sputtered.

“No no. She was found … at the same time as the wards. In the same place. Beneath the city. She had been … she … –” A crash, as the front door gave way. Our men had already thrown their rifles out the windows in surrender. “… She had been asleep for a long time. Crane. Do you understand? A very long time.”

I looked at Rachel again, who all the while had been unperturbed by the chaos around her, but had been staring steadily at me, her arm extended. And suddenly the words she had been speaking … I will not say I understood them, but I recognized the language. The chief difficulty was that not only had I never heard it before, but that no one had; indeed, its phonemes were purely theoretical. But it was a language that could have been, could only be, ur-Samekh.

Robards himself was striding triumphantly into the room. I had no time to process my realization. In the end I responded to Rachel’s eyes, clear and grey, intent but not angry, determined but calm. I handed her the ward.

In your last letter you described Alia upon finding the flight suit: though the particular device was unknown to her, the general principles were well-known, and her expertise had a direct bearing such that she was able to fly it without much difficulty. Rachel’s response to the ward seemed similar: she regarded the runes inscribed on it carefully, and spoke some words while holding it, first cautiously, then more confidently.

Meanwhile Robards had scanned the room, found me, and ordered me brought to him. The advantage in this was that no one was paying attention to Rachel. I was brought face to face with the captain. He stared down at me with a look of triumph on his face, but it then changed to a look of puzzlement as he glanced past me over my shoulder. I turned my head to see Rachel slowly standing up, speaking, perhaps chanting, and finally holding the ward high, and then, a burst of energy –

But afterwards no one else reported feeling a burst of energy. Most felt nothing. Robards and I were both stunned. But, as we learned later, all those who had been under Robards’ sway felt piercing headaches followed by a groggy feeling, as if waking from a dream. Pardon the fairy-tale description, but the spell had been broken.

Here, at last, some of our preparations proved to the good, for our men had been briefed that such a change might occur, and most held their fire. Not everywhere, tragically, and in a few areas the fighting continued. But by sunset it was all over.

I came to my senses ten minutes or so after Rachel’s trick with the ward. My first thought was to my patients. More kept arriving until the Tortoise was full to the gills with makeshift beds. We spent the whole night tending to them all, with more help once the fighting stopped, though the whole time Rachel proved the most capable assistant. At one point she solemnly returned the ward to me, but it felt different … somehow inert. I wanted to speak to her, of course, but without my notebooks and a great deal of time there was no hope of my uttering a coherent sentence in ur-Samekh.

Dawn came and we stepped outside, bleary-eyed, to take some air. We walked down to the wreckage of the docks and stared in amazement at the horizon – and we were not the only ones. For half mile away, where the vortex-storms had roiled for months, now there was only blue sky and gently rolling waves. The storms had been fading all through the night, we learned, a process that likely coincided with the burst of energy from the ward.

And that fact, of course, changed everything. There was a great deal of work to do in the aftermath of our miraculous victory, but Campbell, seeing a chance to sail freely, meant to depart with his crew right away. He was convinced otherwise at a very heated meeting of the Tortoise Council, but only barely. For my part, I would have no thought of leaving until all my patients were stabilized to the point where I might leave them safely under local care. Sanders and the other society men would have no thought of leaving without Rachel, and Rachel seemed to share my sense of obligation towards the wounded. And so Campbell agreed to wait, albeit vowing to set off the instant there was any sign of the storms returning.

Over a week has passed since then, and I write this on the eve of our departure. I say “our” because I have decided to ship out on the Sigsbee, though it was not an easy choice. Chiefly this is because, even after all that has happened, I feel some concern and even a sense of responsibility for Robards. He is now in chains back in Stockport, and will be subject to the justice of the citizens of Garnsey. The governor’s health has returned and I do not think he will be lenient. I fought hard against this decision in the Council meetings, wanting to bring Robards on the Sigsbee, but I was soundly outvoted.

Rachel is setting sail with us, however, as is Van Dyke. Sanders and most of the others from the College will remain behind and see to recovering what can be found in its ruins. There was a great deal of internal debate among the Society persons regarding that arrangement, and I do not yet know how or why it was all settled. I have no small amount of resentment that, even as they seemed to be opening up to me about everything, they had all along neglected to mention Rachel, but there will be time to confront Van Dyke about that at sea.

Robards’ company is now under the command of Lieutenant Atwell, a trusted subordinate who had proved resistant to his Ability and had therefore been ostracized early on. Atwell himself is remaining on Garnsey, along with the majority of the soldiers, but he is allowing any of them who desire it to ship out with the Sigsbee. Among the dozen who have so chosen are, I am glad to say, Jacobs and Sharma. They are inseparable now-a-days, and share the opinion that I will need them to watch my back among these, if you will pardon my using Jacobs’ expression, New Columbian c-cksuckers.

All this leaves me barely any space to comment upon your own discoveries. I am relieved that you are well and I wish I had time to interrogate Sanders regarding this Society encampment on Skald. But I think I can be of more use to you on the Sigsbee than by remaining here.

Alia has come directly from Skald and means to leave again soon, so I must wrap this up. I learned from her that Alona has gone to scout out Greysham covertly and is expected back soon, though if all goes well she will be returning directly to the Sigsbee’s mooring tower somewhere at sea, not here. Alia says that Alona has a letter for me; I imagine it must be one from you that was initially misplaced, though glancing back at our correspondence I see no conspicuous gaps. But who on earth else could be writing me? At any rate, both flyers now mean to keep Garnsey in their circuit as well as the Sigsbee, and hopefully we will have news from Greysham as well.

Perhaps I will write you next at leisure in the midst of an uneventful sea voyage? Something tells me it will not be that simple, but one can dream.

Warm Regards,