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Lord of the Ringle

Eight bells, and under the gibbous moon the coast of Brittany rose with the moderate swell. The steady light that had shone from the fields above the cove had vanished. No signal, no signal at all and Jack lowered his glass and turned to the new officer of the watch.

"We have a fine and calm night of it, Mr Shipp. Our passengers have failed to keep to their appointed time but there is still a chance of receiving them. We shall continue to stand off and on until six bells. Please to direct the new lookouts to be alert, and inspect the party who are to go in the launch – it must be ready to be lowered on the word."

As the second lieutenant descended to the main deck, Jack considered the forms proper to receiving the frigate's guests in such a necessarily unceremonious case. "Soyez le bienvenu, messieurs"? "Bienvenue a bord"? "Enchante de faire votre connaissance"? Probably not – something else was called for, something that nearly approached reverence and yet had nothing of obsequiousness about it; something appropriate to the consequence of both the Navy and the.... How he wished that Stephen were there, such a fine hand with the language.

Presently a small glim appeared on the hill, so small and faint that it might be taken for a setting star.

"Boats away", came the word in barely a whisper, and the blue cutter made the crossing in complete silence, oars muffled. The glim moved quickly down the hill and disappeared as it reached the cutter.

Venus was high now, casting a light that plainly showed the wake of the boat as it pulled back. Every hand on deck stopped, turning to the land as long unearthly shrieks tore across the sea. By the time the watch below tumbled up, aghast, the screaming had been replaced by the roar of heavy horses galloping along the coast road.

Jack met his guests as they were handed up. Four, close wrapped in cloaks, encumbered with baggage.

"Welcome aboard, gentlemen. I hope you will join me for breakfast." Two of the company brightened perceptibly. "But Dr Maturin is not with you. He missed the rendezvous in Brie I collect."

"Yes, sir, but we are main glad to be aboard you. The Frenchies are growing uncommon fractious."

"A fine relief it is to hear a Christian tongue upon your lips, gentlemen," said Jack heartily, ushering his guests into the great cabin; then, in sudden fear lest he let the Service down, he added hastily, "Mais je parlezvous Crapaud bien, in course." He became conscious, as he had not been before, that the new arrivals were small in stature – indeed they stood quite upright as they divested themselves of their cloaks. Then, too, there were those odd, hairy feet, wholly innocent of shoes; Jack, mindful of Stephen's stern injunctions upon this point, strove, not altogether successfully, to keep his eyes from them.

Unearthly shrieks continued to rend the night until they had sunk the land, but three of the cheery, apple-cheeked fellows seemed happy enough, listening to the comfortable creaking of the timbers and the harping of the wind in the rigging as they downed claret with a readiness surprising in guests whose first choice had been ale. The fourth – some outlandish name, Boggle? Biggins? Baggitt? – seemed somewhat careworn and took little part in the conversation beyond a remark that he wished Doctor Maturin had been able to keep the rendezvous at Le Poney Caracolant in Brie.

"Never fear, Mr – ah, my dear sir. I have known the Doctor since '01 and a deeper old file you could not hope to meet. We shall simply stand on towards Ferrol, to a small hidden beach just beyond the cape, and he’ll be aboard within a sennight."

"Good news indeed, Captain. For until we speak to Doctor Maturin we cannot tell how to reach – our goal." And he lapsed into pensive silence while the others saw off the first half-dozen of claret. Ready with song, they yet proved swift and hearty trenchermen; Jack, his questing fingers encountering a bare dish, was obliged to roar: "Killick! Killick, there! Claret and more toasted cheese and see you do not stay your hand. Now, Sam, young feller-me-lad, what was you saying about keeping caterpillars from cabbages?"

"Which," said Killick, slamming down a laden tray and fixing Jack with a stern eye, "there ain't no more cheese now, not if it was ever so. And about that there whitesome, gurgling gobbler, a-lurking in the pantry; I ain't seeing to it, not if the Doctor was to beg me on his bended knees. Which he never brought a horribler –

Killick's description of the Doctor's latest specimen was savagely cut short by a sudden and violent heeling of the Surprise. Killick, and the Captain's three strangely small guests, were hurled onto the starboard bulkhead, which now formed an almost level floor for the Great Cabin. Jack slammed into the edge of the table, winded, a hail of dishes and bottles falling upon his back from the port-side serving table whilst the sound of a great wind filled the air.

The Surprise was laid right over, with t'gallant spars just clearing the frenzied foam of the now boiling sea. Mr Shipp was flailing in the starboard scuppers; the helmsman hung unconscious by his lashings; and the watch on deck clung to whatever rope or stanchion that had been to hand when the wind had swatted the frigate as a boy swats a fly.

All were stunned by the blasts, most were barely aware of the blood-red light blooming in the sky. Brighter it grew, though, and ever hotter, until the shrouds steamed, wet canvas turned tinder-dry, and
men shrank into whatever shade their precarious perches allowed.

A pallid head, made ruddy now by the great light, popped from a 'tween deck port, froze a moment, then howled at the sky:

"Doctor, Doctor, he sees me! He sees me! Doctor, Doctor, save poor—

"Mister Hollom!" Jack called to the only officer visible as he clambered his way on deck "What the devil was that?"

Hollom was all too visible. He dangled from the near-horizontal mizzen shrouds, his feet dancing for a vanished purchase, one arm holding tight, the other pointing over the port side to where...

Jack stared in astonishment at the great sheet of flame. In all his days at sea, and the count of those days had now mounted to a vast number, he had never seen the like. Volcanoes and tidal waves in distant waters certainly, but off the Medoc on a clear night? Unheard of!

A question rose half-formed in his mind.

"Mister Hollom, would you drop down to the cabin and ask my passengers to step up to the errr, quarterdeck, if you please."

As the midshipman slid below, Jack noted with some satisfaction that the Surprise was slowly returning to an even keel. The great wave, or whatever it had been, had passed on, leaving behind that curious flaming apparition towering over the horizon, lighting up the ruddy faces of his guests as they scrambled beside him and stood silent, gaping at the sight.

"Beg pardon Sir, but there was only the three of them."

Hollom indicated the small group. Sure enough, the quiet chap, what was his name... Buggles? Babbit? Bogger? was not there.

"I didn’t oughter have taken my eyes off him!" exclaimed Sam, glaring at Jack.

Jack was on the verge of responding, when he was cut short by an unearthly, high-pitched wailing from below. The three figures beside him immediately clapped their hands over their ears and crouched, trembling and staring wildly about.

Jack sighed. "Bonden, would you cut down to the cabin and see what is upsetting Killick?"

Water pooled about Stephen's chair; so urgent had been the necessity to confer with Jack and the three – the four – passengers that the Doctor had not delayed to change his clothes, soaked when he slipped while climbing the Surprise's side. His watch lay in a shallow bowl of sweet oil. Stephen was intrigued by the strong physical resemblance between Killick and "the Sneaker", as young Sam insisted on calling the unwelcome fourth of their party, hunched in a corner of the great cabin and nibbling on a piece of ship's biscuit, picking out and chewing weevils with evident relish. "So you weren't able to approach this fiery tower?" he asked Jack.

"The wind had veered around and remained steady from its direction. We lay in the neighborhood for several days, then sailed to rendezvous with you. I hoped, Stephen, that you might advise me on a course of action. What infernal plot of Buonaparte is this?"

"I am not sure that the Corsican's hand is behind this. But if it is, he may find that he has grasped more than he intended. Are you familiar with Peter Weir-Jackson's theory of parallel universes?"

"Has it anything to do with spherical geometry?"

"Not that I could tell you, brother, but I think not. No, but you might think of two pages of a book lying in intimate contact, touching but separate. Although Weir-Jackson speculated that under some circumstances – he mentioned surpassing an energy threshold through the agency of a process quite beyond my understanding, although it involved the manipulation of visual images by mathematical computations – those separate pages might merge, become one, at least at discrete points. Perhaps that fiery tower's natural home is on another page, mayhap even in a separate book."

"Begging pardon, your honours," said Sam, setting his can of grog down on the table, "but what has these ideas of this Weird-Jackson fellow have to do with getting my master back? We got to do something. Now!"

Stephen nodded thoughtfully at the short, intense figure. "As to that, I have the germ of an idea. And, I might say, I agree that there is not a minute to lose. Jack, how long would it take for you to

send a signal to London?"

"Why a trice, no more. There lies Ringle, and beyond her the Isle of Wight. Then the telegraph up over the Downs and hey for the Admiralty. Why do you ask?" The last sentence was unspoken as he had learned long ago Stephen's thoughts on question and answer as a form of conversation. Stephen drew from his coat pockets a small black cigar, a catling, a wen, a blue draft, a phial of decomposing herring, a packet of pink pills, and a paper and pencil, and scrawled a note.

"Be so good as to cause this message to be conveyed to Sir Joseph, and I believe we may help our friends, so small in stature but so great in want."

Bonden, Skinner and Baker sat companionably in the maintop gazing at setting Arcturus and waiting for the show.

"There it is", said Bonden.

"Set yer clock," said Skinner.

"You ain't got no clock," said Baker.

"Stow that," said Bonden vanishing down the mainstay as the cry for fire buckets came up and the Congreve Rocket crashed onto the quarterdeck.

Stephen stepped through the ring of steam and swabbers, cut the marlin that seized the package to the rocket, tore off the Amazon cover and handed Jack "Master and Commander" and Sam "The Lord of the Rings".

"Come gentlemen, we must make haste," came a strong voice from over the side.

There in the darkness bobbed three tiny canoes. "Polynesian, I think," said Nathaniel Martin, causing all hands to rush to the side to look down into them. But all they saw were the three small visitors swarming down the side and the boats paddling strongly away. The deck fell silent save for the satisfied sound of polishing rising from the cabin where Killick moiled and toiled happily with his new mate.

The End

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