Men Not Afraid: The Owl and the Snake

  1. Chapter 5: The Spanish-American War
  2. Men Not Afraid
  3. Chapter 7: The Maiden and the Mob

Hail to thee, blithe spirit!
Bird thou never wert,
That from heaven, or near it,
Pourest thy full heart
In profuse strains of unpremeditated art.
Higher still and higher
From the earth thou springest,
Like a cloud of fire;
The blue deep thou wingest,
And singing still dost soar, and soaring ever singest.

—Percy Bysshe Shelley, To a Skylark, 2574

The clouds broke to the clear sea, and the morning sun’s rays flew up from the East. Thirty-two ships sailed in the waters below the Athena’s Horn. As the storm broke across the Florida shores, the men at the batteries sprang into action. In the sky, the flagman on the John Paul Jones signaled to begin the attack.

The crew on each flier pushed huge wooden barrels off the edges of their ships. The barrels trailed thick black smoke as they fell. ‘Greek’ fire exploded as the barrels shattered, some against the sea and others against the Spanish ships below.

Explosions filled the shore as the coastal batteries fired into the enemy fleet. When the last friendly cannon fired, the flagman on the John Paul Jones signaled again, to his left, and the two ships of the port wing tilted and flew downward to battle. The flagman signaled to his right and the starboard ships dove to the sea, circling to the fore of the Spanish ships. As the flagman lowered his flags the great hulk of the John Paul Jones itself sank towards the enemy.

Cannon on the Spanish ships swiveled upward haphazardly as crew members rushed simultaneously to smother the Greek fire and mount a defense. Scattered cannon fired upwards; others fired to the shore. The John Paul Jones fired the first volley from the skies, her twelve barrels thundering as one. She rocked back from the recoil, just as the two descending wings of the formation took their turn after the John Paul Jones and fired into the Spanish from fore and aft.

The fliers swung back to the sky in an arc, their paths crossing midway to port of the Spaniards. The Spanish guns volleyed to port, but the fliers were already swinging to starboard, flanking the Admiral’s ship. A volley from the fliers tore into the Spanish fleet, followed quickly by a thunderous hail from the shore batteries.

The Liberty’s Maiden, with its sails bright as the American flag, detached and flew directly above the sea-bound fleet, dropping another load of fire as it flew over. Fire spread across another deck, and as the crew rushed to smother it with sand, another volley from the skies and the shore tore into their ship. Balls big as a man’s head tore man and ship alike and the fire spread unchecked. Four Spanish ships were listing in the water and one was sinking.

The Maiden rejoined the flier formation. Another battery from the shore wreaked havoc on the Spanish fleet, and then the fliers flew in to drop their last load of fire.

The enemy fleet was in disarray and nearly routed. Their return fire to the shore was haphazard, with one Spanish volley accidentally hitting another Spanish ship.

“Like shooting ducks out of a barrel, Sam,” said Laura, disappointed, on the deck of the Athena’s Horn.

“Hold fire!” Sam cried, “Flier, ready for our run!”

Captain Smith turned to her sister.

“You were expecting more?”

“Hoping, maybe.”

“Don’t make trouble where you don’t need to, Laura. Have you noticed that one of those ships isn’t Spanish?”

“I’ve been preparing for my attack. I let you handle the details,” she said, smiling. “If it isn’t Spanish, what is it?”

“I can’t tell. And our new lookout hasn’t noticed yet.”

A volley erupted from the other ships in the formation.

“Daltrey!” cried Sam, “Dive!”

The Horn tipped fore down and dove for the enemy fleet. Sam held to the wheel. Laura held fast to the railing with one hand, and kept the other in the pouch at her side.

They swooped over one of the Spanish ships. The Horn twisted sharply port and bottom out, until it flew through the air on its side and only the force of the turn held the crew on deck. Laura pulled a leather packet from her pouch. The two starboard guns fired into the enemy’s deck. Laura emptied the pouch over the ship and a cloud of smoke dissipated over the enemy crew. By the time the Athena’s Horn righted itself and began its upward climb, the crew of the Spanish ship were fast asleep and dreaming of more successful fights than this.

“Saturn’s Procession, did you see that strange ship? Something’s going on there. I saw one of the crew…

“Sam,” said Laura, “that’s the preparation for a magical dispersement.”


“They’re going to break the hermetic bonds that hold spellings together.”

“Laura, I don’t—”

Laura pulled a tiny glass globe from her pouch and tossed it into the air, crying out to Hermes in Greek. Flashes of light sparkled three ships’ lengths out from the Horn. The Horn faltered, stumbled, as did the other fliers. The John Paul Jones dropped from the sky like a rock, its wings folded straight up. The Liberty’s Maiden raised its sails to the full and caught the wind, sailing safely, albeit ungracefully, to the sea.

Of the two other ships, one dove fore first into the sea, masts cracking as they hit the water line; the final ship landed upright but hard, and listed quickly to starboard.

The Athena’s Horn, after stumbling, straightened out and resumed its upward lift.

“Gods! That was too close!”

“More than close, Laura. We’re the last ship in the air. The Admiral’s down, and Joshua’s Maiden is the only functioning ship left on our side.”

The cannons kept firing from shore, and the remaining Spanish ships returned fire more confidently.

“We took our target out of the fight,” continued Sam. “There are still ten Spanish ships against Joshua.”

“Almost a fair fight.”

“I think we can tip the scales in Liberty’s favor.”

“Unless they can do that spell again.”

“Enemy flier!” cried the lookout.

Sam and Laura looked back at the battle they were approaching. One of the enemy ships was lifting off of the sea.

“The unknown ship,” whispered Sam.

“Those markings on her side,” said Laura. “That’s Celtic. I was right: the Spaniards have allied themselves with Eire.”

Sam jumped to the railing separated the wheel deck from the main deck.

“Batten down the hatches, we’re in for a dog fight!”

And she grabbed the railing and flipped back up to the wheel.

“Laura, anything left up your sleeve to help us?”

“I have what spellings for what we planned for the sea battle: I can use Morphincant, to make them sleep. Kentucky Charm to unravel all their bindings. Over the area of the entire ship, these are powerful incantations. At best, I can perform two more. Don’t count on more than one, Sam.”

“Kentucky charm? I didn’t know you’d mastered that one yet, Laura.”

“I haven’t,” she said, and smiled.

The other ship was in firing distance, and both ships opened up with their forward cannon, each also twisting out of the path of the other’s shot. Sam’s eyes opened wide as she read the letters on the side.

“Sam, that ship! I can read the name: it’s the Sleeping Dragon!”

“Zeus’ piss, and Joshua’s still got his hands full,” said Sam.

She picked up the “hornpipe” that connected to the Flier’s room.

“Daltrey, swing low towards the Spanish ship nearest the Jones. Mage’s distance.”

“You’ve really got something up your sleeve if you’re not yelling it out, Sam.”

“I want you to morphincant the Spanish ship—let the Jones’ crew take it over. Between that and the shore battery, maybe we can still see this through.”

The Horn pirouetted down, and the Dragon twisted round after it. The crew of the John Paul Jones were already making their way to the Spanish ship, in dinghy and small sail, and the Spaniards were readying their firearms and swords. Sam was splitting her attention between the Spanish ship below and the Irish Dragon above. She saw the Dragon’s captain signal to his men with a sweeping hand motion.

“Starboard lateral, Daltrey,” yelled Sam, “they’re going to fire!”

A barrage of cannon fell from the Dragon and past the Horn as it glided “up” to starboard. Laura was standing quiet, one hand gripping the railing and the other holding a silken bag. They passed over the Spanish ship. Laura winked at one of the Spaniards, and flipped the bag open, letting the golden dust spill out.

“Now, back, straight up at her bare bottom! And ready your cannon!” yelled Sam, once again ignoring the hornpipe, and the Athena’s Horn twisted up towards the Sleeping Dragon.

The Dragon was unable to track the Horn without turning upside down. The Horn came up its port side and delivered a broadside. Surprised, perhaps, by their enemy’s abrupt change in direction, the Dragon’s crew fired late, and the Horn took the high air. But the Dragon sprang into action again didn’t let its wounds detract from the battle. The two ships twisted round and up like Hermes’ great caduceus.

A great ball of fire burst from the Dragon’s deck, but scant seconds earlier, Laura had brought her Chinese fan into play. It generated a great wind that momentarily shook the Irish ship, and the fiery explosion merely hit the Horn’s tail. But it did take hold, and smoke rose from her deck as another broadside pounded the Sleeping Dragon. The Dragon could no longer ignore its injuries, but neither was the Horn at the full of its powers.

The battle remained even, and Sam decided it was time to take chances.

“Laura, morphincant or Kentucky charm?

“I don’t think they’re stupid, Sam. They’ll be expecting a morphincant if they saw what I did to their friends.”

Carry me back to old Kentucky, then, Laura.”


But Sam was jumping down to the deck to spur her crew on.

“Bring us in close, Daltrey,” she yelled. “I want their captain to kiss my ass!”

The crew laughed, and resumed loading and working their cannon with renewed vigor. Daltrey brought them in and bucked above their volley, taking only a few cannon in the bottom, and then nearly did scrape the sides of the enemy ship. The aft fire was nearly under control.

Laura concentrated, and held a smoking copper censor from a leather chain. She breathed in the fumes.

Sam yelled the command to fire, and their volley tore into the enemy. She waved her sword at the Spanish crew and looked as though she would jump aboard their ship.

“I’ll have your ‘Dragon’ for supper boys! We’re going to take you apart scale by scale!”

And on the Sleeping Dragon, all the sails fluttered, flew off the masts, and disintegrated. The enemy crew’s clothing grew tattered and fell into the wind, and their captain’s gaudy uniform as well. He stood amidst his crew in equal rank with nothing but his sword in hand.

“Ha! Now we’ll take your bellies as we took your scales. Into it!” Sam cried, and now she did jump to the enemy ship, and one of every two men in her crew did as well, sword and gun ready.

“Laura!” she cried back as she matched her sword skills against the naked captain, laughing as she did, “you’ve done it!”

The Sleeping Dragon rocked and jerked, rudderless and sailless in the air.

But Laura didn’t reply: she lay face down and still upon the wheel deck of the Athena’s Horn.

  1. Chapter 5: The Spanish-American War
  2. Men Not Afraid
  3. Chapter 7: The Maiden and the Mob