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J.A. Aarntzen

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The Legacy of Hickory Robinbreast Part 28
By J.A. Aarntzen
Saturday, March 19, 2011

Rated "G" by the Author.

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Recent stories by J.A. Aarntzen
· The Redeemer Part 33
· The Legacy of Hickory Robinbreast Part 30
· The Redeemer Part 32
· The Lucky Shirt
· The Legacy of Hickory Robinbreast Part 29
· My Name is Space
· The Redeemer Part 31
           >> View all 143


Merek discovers that there are other vessels on the Mediterrenean that seek to stop him from reaching Spain and that the distinction between friend and foe has become blurred.

 

Some of those aboard those ships might have seen the Italian Riviera but they would have thought it only another merchant ship intent upon keeping the blood flow of trade continuing between the network of French allied ports.
 
On one occasion a big vessel sailing under the banner of Sardinia tried to make communication with the Italian Riviera. At first, Pappy thought that the flag signals were a request for the ship to stop. He grew frightened that there might be military men aboard that wanted to inspect the cargo of the Genoese vessel. Gunrunning and the black market thrived as well as any of the legitimate commerce did. When Pappy described to Enrico and One Eye the exact motions of the flag, they grew easy.
 
“The Sardinians are wishing us a safe voyage!” the skipper laughed.
 
At once the Frenchman returned the same message to the vessel. At a distance of four nautical miles the two ships passed each other. Enrico and One Eye contented themselves that everything was all right and returned their attention to navigating along the Spanish coast.
 
Pappy, feeling that the incident was over, resumed scanning the horizon. Out of the corner of his eye he watched the Sardinian vessel slip away to the east. He was now looking upon a Spanish city that One Eye identified as Alicante. It was a typical Mediterranean city with its sun-bleached villas clustered around a humming harbor filled chiefly with a fleet of fishing vessels.
 
As he watched this small throng of boats make their way to port after another day at nets and lines, he suddenly grew aware of something following the Italian Riviera at a great distance. When he looked directly at this object he saw that it was the Sardinian vessel. It was moving at them with incredible speed. Frantically, he called down his observations to the men below.
 
What were these Sardinians up to? Had Enrico somehow botched his friendly signals? Had he used some archaic system that would tell the Sardinians that all was not right with the Italian ship? But how could that be? Enrico had matched sign for sign the exact same pattern that the Sardinians had used themselves.
 
Then as Enrico and One Eye hastily tried to rework the riggings to get more speed out of the ship’s sails, Pappy watched the Sardinian banner slip down its mast. A moment later the Ensign Jack was flapping above the suddenly transformed merchant vessel. Its benign hull had sprouted huge guns. Upon its main deck what had been innocent appearing crates had now become two turreted cannons with sights that were locked upon the Italian Riviera. It was a British warship!
 
It somehow managed to slip through the French dragnet at the mouth of the Mediterranean and was now the most deadly shark in these waters that divide two continents. Like the conical predator it resembled, the British ship moved steadily and unrelentingly towards its victim.
 
Enrico and One Eye could not work fast enough. The lines got jammed and twisted in their frenetic efforts to set the sails plumb to the wind. The British warship was gaining on them, its bloody Ensign Jack declaring its bellicose intent.
 
“Merek, get down from there!” Enrico cried. “You’re too easy a target in the air like that!”
 
Pappy was all too eager to comply with the Frenchman’s warning. But just as he set his foot on the rigging he noticed the flagman upon the British vessel. He was signaling to the Italian Riviera. Pappy was not able to understand these patterns. He called down to Enrico and told him what he saw.
 
Enrico climbed up the mast until he had a vantage where he could detect the motioning man.
 
“What are they saying?” the gypsy leader cried. He, too, was able to see the flagman but he did not have the skills to interpret what the signals meant.
 
Enrico’s face was white. After a gulp, he said, “They are demanding that we surrender or they will blow us out of the water.”
 
“What do we do?” the younger gypsy gasped plaintively at Pappy. The elf was now on the main deck.
 
“Can’t we outrun them?” the gypsy leader answered desperately.
 
“That is a British destroyer. There is no ship swifter than she. We stand no chance in outrunning her,” One Eye said grimly. Even though his words were of pessimism, his actions were howling that he wasn’t giving up hope. He was still working as a demon to untether the zesty spirit that lay furled within the ship’s sails.
 
Pappy watched the British ship close in on them. He saw its men readying the massive fore-cannons. They worked as a team aboard that ship. And even at this moment, Pappy could not help but feel admiration for them. They were working openly and daringly deep within their enemies’ water. They were a special breed. They were the latest in a long, proud heritage of being the imperial masters of the sea. It was because of them that Napoleon was not already the Emperor over everything upon the good Earth. And as Pappy watched the men readying the ammo supply by each cannon in tight, regimented fashion he had the premonition that the British Navy would be the Little Corsican’s undoing. Nothing could tear the heart out of this naval force. They had too long a tradition of ruling supreme on the high seas. An idea came to the elf.
 
“Why don’t we surrender to them?” he asked. His eyes fell mostly on Enrico for it would be the Frenchman that would be the hardest to convince. “Their enemies are our enemies. We both would draw the fire of the French on sight. Why not throw in our lot with them?”
 
“And maybe convince them to take us through Gibraltar?” Enrico laughed sarcastically and then spat. “Merek, don’t be so naïve! They have no intention of accepting our surrender. All that they want to do is sink this ship. They only ask for our surrender as a matter of naval etiquette and as a ploy to get us to stop so that they would not waste too much cannon fodder going afoul into the sea.”
 
“They are not barbarians!” the younger gypsy exclaimed. “The British are not brutal murderers. They will take us aboard their ship as prisoners and they will confiscate what they want from the Italian Riviera before they scuttle her to the bottom.”
 
“I’m afraid that the Frenchman is right,” One Eye said. “They recognize this ship for what it is, an Italian merchant vessel. There will be nothing on board that they will consider worth salvaging. And the last thing a suicide ship like that would want is more weight even if that weight is human.”
 
“Then what do we do?” the gypsy leader repeated his earlier question.
 
“I have an idea,” Enrico said. “There is still some gunpowder onboard, is there not?”
 
“You can bet Castrillo would never use up all of that commodity,” One Eye replied.
 
“There was a barrel or two of it down below with the wine barrels,” the gypsy leader added.
 
“Perfect!” Enrico laughed and told the crew of the Italian Riviera his plan. It all hinged on whether or not the British loved their wine as much as the men of the continent do.
 
A minute later as the two gypsies and One Eye Damiani began hauling the heavy barrels to the main deck, Enrico began signaling to the British vessel that the Italian Riviera intended to surrender. In concert with the Frenchman’s message, Pappy hoisted a white banner up the main mast.
 
It took several minutes before the Italian Riviera slowed down and finally came to a rest. In the meantime, all of the barrels below deck were now lined up along the gangplank. The two gypsies stood next to them, panting heavily from the exertion of carrying them.
 
The British warship was pushing up a swath of water as it plowed towards its kill. On board, its men were scattered everywhere and everywhere they were busy right down to a boyish man mopping up an aft deck. Men were stationed at its artillery, which they positioned so that they could get a better aim at the Italian Riviera’s tense hull. Its flagman had ceased his signals and was walking toward mid ship.
 
This caused Enrico to start making frantic gestures with his banners. It was vital that he kept communication going with the British vessel. Seeing that the Frenchman was losing the attention of the enemy boat, One Eye began yelling, “Hey! Hey!” He encouraged the others to do the same.
 
“Hey! Hey! Hey!” the crewmembers of the Italian Riviera cried. They could not allow the British to go about a cold kill without acknowledging their presence.
 
At last the Brit flagman turned and saw the frenetic sweeping of the colored cloths upon the Italian boat. Pappy heard a voice asking the flagman what all the ado was about.
 
The flagman answered that the Italians had some precious cargo aboard that the British admiralty would be loathe to send to the bottom.
 
“Find out the nature of this cargo!” the British captain barked. Even from the distance that they were away Pappy could detect that this captain was not very interested in what the Italian vessel was offering.
 
Enrico signaled that it was Piedmont wine in reply to the flagman’s question.
 
“We English are ale drinkers!” the Captain flapped. “It is only swarthy continentals that have taste for the grape.”
 
Pappy relayed what he heard to Enrico. It seemed that the British weren’t buying it. At once, Enrico went into a flurry of signals.
 
“What are you telling them?” the gypsy leader asked Enrico.
 
The Frenchman said quietly, “I am telling them that within the barrels are the secret plans for the French invasion of Istanbul and Ankara.”
 
“What are they saying?”
 
Enrico strained his eyes. “They are asking how a boat of Italians would come by such plans.”
 
“Tell them that we are bipartisan. Tell them that we are part of the underground that is seeking to oust the French from the Mediterranean.”
 
Enrico smiled, “That is exactly what I am telling them!” His arms were gesticulating wildly.
 
The gypsy leader did not smile. The situation was too grave for frivolity. “Tell them that we will send the barrels across on a lifeboat. Tell them that in return they have to send us a lifeboat of their own so that we can reach shore. Then they will have our blessings to scuttle the Italian Riviera.”
 
Enrico tried his best to translate the gypsy’s feverish words into careful maneuvers with the two flags.
 
One Eye sighed. “We have made our offer.”
 
“It is now up to them to decide if we live or die,” Pappy said. His eyes were fixed upon the men at the helm of the British ship. Would they see through the plan?
 
For several slow minutes the officers on board the warship consulted with one another. It was a time that wore raw the nerves of the elf and the men upon the Italian Riviera.
 
Then, at last, the officers passed on a message to their flagman.
 
“This is it!” the younger gypsy whispered. His fingers were crossed.
 
The flagman made several patterns with his signaling instruments. Pappy’s eyes were fixed upon Enrico, the only one that was able to read those patterns.
 
“What are they saying?” the gypsy leader anguished.
 
Enrico’s face was heavy. “They are asking for a code word that will prove that we are part of the resistance.”
 
“Do you know any?” the gypsy leader cried.
 
“How would I know any? Up to a month ago I would have been hunting down the underground!”
 
“You don’t know any word that you can give them?” the other gypsy asked.
 
“I say be honest with them,” Pappy said. “Tell them that we are independent agents acting on our own. Tell them we act only out of a weariness of French imperial rule.” Pappy knew that his words were based on the truth but it disturbed him profoundly what consequences this truth might have upon the British.
 
Two minutes later the Brit flagman came back with the message from his officer. “Send over the barrels in a boat. After we inspect them then we will decide your fate.”
 
That was all that Enrico and the others wanted and they found it hard to stifle cries of joy. They knew that they could not accept the terms right away. It would draw the suspicion of the British. The world of negotiation depended upon the norm of haggling. Enrico asked the British to give them some security that they would not blow the boat out of the water until they, the Italians, had made their escape.
 
At length, the response came. “We give you our British word of honor.”
 
Enrico dropped his flag. He had to hold his stomach from laughing. As a Frenchman he well understood what British honor meant.
 
“Tell them that we accept!” the gypsy leader cried forcefully. He was afraid that Enrico’s behavior might rile the British into shooting.
 
Enrico made the sign. He put down the flags and began to assist the gypsies and One Eye as they loaded the barrels onto the lifeboat, a twenty-foot hull shaped in a wide V. They set the barrels on their sides. They did not want to take the risk of having them topple over and fall into the sea. They made sure that the labels were face down. It would be disastrous if the British were to see that not all of the barrels had Piedmont Wine stenciled on them.
 
It took considerable muscle power to lower the boat into the water without having the barrels upset. Slowly, the lifeboat came to a rest in the choppy waters. One Eye Damiani had rigged a water anchor for the lifeboat so that it would not drift like its parent ship and the British vessel. This anchor consisted of some old blankets found below deck that were tied in a parasol shape so that it would catch the undertow beneath the surface. When combined with the competing force of the shoreward drift on the surface waters, this water anchor served to keep the lifeboat stationary. The British, being free from anchor, would drift into it and collect the barrels.
 
Pappy was afraid that the two important barrels that sat on top of the four others might roll off because of the turgidity of the surf. They couldn’t have put these critical barrels on the bottom tier since it was important that they were not missed.
 
The lifeboat tossed and swayed with the swells. The Italian Riviera had drifted shoreward about two hundred yards from it when the British vessels had come within ten yards of the wine-laden boat. There were men who were standing ready with long gaffs that would hitch the lifeboat to the warship. The barrels were teetering back and forth with the big wash that the British were pushing ahead of them.
 
One of the Brits must have been aware of the danger. His long gaff plunged into the barrel’s top and caught a tenuous hold of it. Another hand with gaff managed to secure the barrel’s other side and with extreme care and a fine display of strength and coordination the two men were hoisting the barrel to the main galley of the warship.
 
“Merek, you have the best eyes. Is that one of the barrels?” Enrico asked. Behind his back he held a loaded musket.
 
Pappy strained his eyes. It was hard to tell because of the distance and because of the rotation of the barrel. The stencils were not quite distinct. But the bottoms of the letters did seem to have the spacing for the word ‘Gunpowder’. 
 
And Pappy knew as well as the others that they did not have the time to be hesitant and second-guess themselves. They had committed themselves the moment that they set free the lifeboat. The elf noticed that the two gypsies had already lifted their guns and had them pointed at the barrel being hoisted by the gaff hooks. One Eye had managed to slip away and was now setting aim with the nine-inch gun below deck. It was the same gun that Castrillo had used to try to blow the El Tipperon out of the water.
 
Pappy was all too aware that these same maneuvers were taking place on the British ship. Dozens of guns were fixed upon the denizens of the Italian Riviera. If anything suspicious were to happen a split second later the air would be rented with the cacophonous roar of fire volleys hurtling towards the Italian ship.
 
Then, as the British warship climbed up towards the crest of a two-foot wave, the barrel was tilted at a sharp enough angle for Pappy to definitely identify the barrel as the one that they hoped that it would be. Jittering, Pappy rubbed his hand down his left side. It was the agreed upon signal. It meant fire away.
 
Explosions popped from the guns of Enrico and the two gypsies. Two of the shots went astray. They missed the barrel target but did catch one of the gaff men who tumbled backward from the concussion of the blow.
 
But the third shot found its way into the wooden barrel. It tore a savage path through the splintering wood of the falling keg. Two hundred pounds of gunpowder ignited in one blow.
 
A deafening blow hammered Pappy’s ears; a wall of hot wind singed his face. His eyes were held shut, but when he opened them he caught the last glimpse of the main hull of the British warship before it was permanently claimed by the sea. Everywhere the water was strewn with burning fragments and shards of the obliterated vessel.
 
It was a spectacular explosion. The Italian Riviera rocked violently with the aftershock in the water. It just about capsized. Small fires were spread here and there upon her deck where bits of the British warship had landed.
 
They could not revel in their victory. They had to get those fires out before the ship became engulfed by flame. Although the Italian Riviera had some armor plating, most of it was still comprised of wood. There was also a real danger that the main sail would go up like a torch.
 
One Eye located a supply of pails that were rapidly used to toss water on some of the more threatening embers. The gypsy leader resorted to using his bare hands to throw overboard as many of the larger fragments as he could. Everywhere there was smoldering as slow fires ate their cinderous paths into the wooden skeleton of the Italian Riviera. It was going to be an almost impossible task to get them all. There were so many places on board that a fire could brood and incubate without anybody being aware of its presence.
 
The two gypsies worked feverishly trying to get rid of the more immediate risk while Enrico and One Eye were given the task of getting the ship back on course. They had drifted well inside of the one hundred fathom mark according to the charts. There was danger that they could run the Italian Riviera aground.
 
Pappy was requested to go below ship and make a thorough scouring for any possible fires. As the elf walked down the ramp that led to the lower deck, he was wishing that they did not have to spend too much more time at sea. This encounter with the British had been a fortunate one for them. Yet as they drew nearer to Gibraltar there would be more of these meetings with renegade British cruisers and all manner of French vessels. The Italian Riviera did not stand a prayer. Pappy wished that they could abandon ship and take to the land. His heart was no longer with the sea.
 
The deck below the Italian Riviera’s galley was a musty, dark place with a poorly equipped kitchen, officers’ quarters, two sleeping rooms, a dining mess, and toilet facilities. As he walked by the officers’ quarters, he tucked his head in to check on the condition of Fender Apple and Dominic de Sousa.
 
They were both lying under thick covers on the same bed. It probably was the last bed that Paolo Castrillo had ever slept upon and by the looks of the old elf and the ancient Portuguese, this bed may lay claim to some more last nights. They looked exactly as they did when Pappy first saw them being taken out of the El Tipperon’s cutty.
 
They were comatose. Both of their faces were held in almost angry expressions but they did not move. If the destruction of the British warship had not roused them, Pappy was afraid that the only thing that would get them around was the Archangel Gabriel’s horn. That would get them up on the other side of mortality. That was the side that would keep Pappy forever in the dark as to what happened to them since he last saw them in Vienna.
 
He closed the door to the officer’s quarters and continued sniffing around like a rodent for possible fires. Enrico had said that Pappy had a better nose than anybody in the French army. This had caused the younger gypsy to make a quip that if all Frenchmen had the big noses that Enrico de Bertrand had this would not be paying Merek any compliment at all.
 
Here and there Pappy did catch a whiff of smoke but nothing that was too unsettling. Most of the burning smells were coming from the galley through the air vents and punched-out knots in the floorboards. Some of them however were bona fide cinders that were burning on this level. Merek did the best that he could to squelch the charring fires on his own. None of them were dangerous or warranted any preemptive attention from the men above deck.
 
He made his way down another ramp that led to the lower deck, the bowels of the Italian Riviera, as it were. Down here was where Paolo Castrillo had stored most of the cargo that he transported in the Mediterranean and Aegean regions.
 
Being so deep and low in the Italian Riviera, the cargo often had the function of being ballast for the vessel to keep it from toppling over. It was down here that the gypsies found the wine barrels and the gunpowder kegs. Some of this cargo was still to be found sitting around. There were several barrels of Piedmont wine lying in a chaotic ramble in the cargo room’ s corner. They had been probably upset by the aftershock of the explosion if not the explosion itself. Such power was completely awesome. It was absolutely frightening that men could use such relentless force and power in the course of their disagreements. And to think that that Armageddon could be stored in the confines of a stubby keg and unleashed by just a single projectile made Pappy feel very shallow of breath.
 
There did not seem to be any fires down here. He hadn’t expected any down so low. It was best for him to get back to the main galley where he could be of better assistance to his crewmates. As he walked towards the ramp his eyes caught hold of the stenciled markings of a series of neatly stockpiled barrels that were stored beneath the rampart.
 
It was gunpowder. It was not just a barrel or two. There were at least thirty of them. It had only taken one to sink the British warship. He dare not imagine how much damage thirty of them could do. Suddenly his knees felt weak and wobbly as he realized that there were many fires onboard the Italian Riviera. If just one smoldering ash made its way towards these kegs, the vessel would be vaporized.
 
The elf rushed up the two ramps to the galley. Through a puffing breath, he explained what he found down below to the four men. They were in agreement that there was a danger but that for the moment there was no real urgency.
 
“Should have known that Castrillo was involved in the black market,” One Eye shook his head.
 
“How could Madelina have gone for such a guy?” the younger gypsy said in dismay.
 
“There’s no accounting for love,” the gypsy leader replied.
 
“But for who would Castrillo have been running the gunpowder for? I thought that his sentiments were pro-French. There would be no need for the Empire to buy from the Black Market. Napoleon has enough firepower to conquer the world over and over for fifty years,” Enrico pondered.
 
“The answer is obvious, Monsieur,” One Eye said sardonically.
 
“He was running the powder for the enemy, the British? How could he?” Enrico was astounded and flabbergasted.
 
“I don’t think Castrillo was the supply train for the British or else that warship would never have fired upon us. I think Castrillo is a mercenary that sells himself to the highest bidder. He probably hired out his services and his cargo space to the organized resistance,” One Eye answered.
 
“But why would he?” the Frenchman cried.
 
“Can’t you understand?” the gypsy leader responded. “Paolo Castrillo was a man of fortune. He had no loyalties to give out other than that that would reap him gain. He would help the French and he would do things to see to their defeat.”
 
“Even on this very trip!” One Eye cut in. It was obvious that the Genoese skipper was taking pleasure in besmearing his dead enemy. “Castrillo was helping the French by transporting their wine to Marseilles and at the same time he was running gunpowder for the resistance. He was going to collect for his unsavory services from both sides!”
 
“I wonder to whom the gunpowder was commissioned to?” Pappy asked.
 
“You say that in more than an academic tone,” the younger gypsy remarked.
 
“Well,” the elf began. “The way that I look at it, there is somebody waiting for the gunpowder. We all seem to be of the mind that that somebody has a vital interest in causing the French to fall. If that is so that somebody might befriend us since our record has proven that we are on the same side as him. And to make one more assumption, if this person is able to finance a shipment of explosives he might just have enough in his coffers to spirit us away to Portugal by coach where there would be no questions asked.”
 
The four men nodded at Pappy’s ideas. It was the gypsy leader that suggested that this unknown buyer might be Spanish for the Italian Riviera was well off course for Marseilles.
 
“I wonder if there is anything on board that might give us the identity of this mystery person?” the young gypsy mused.
 
“I don’t think so,” One Eye responded. “Castrillo would not be a fool to allow his sources to be discovered if he were ever searched.”
 
“That’s where I think that you are wrong, Captain,” the gypsy leader said. “By your own admission Castrillo owes no allegiance to anybody. If he were to be discovered by the French, he would willingly part with the name for whom the gunpowder was for.”
 
One Eye chuckled. “You are already starting to know Paolo Castrillo better than me! Of course, he would supply that name but I do not think that we shall necessarily find evidence onboard as to who and where that buyer may be. Castrillo probably kept that kind of information safely locked in his mind.”
 
It was Enrico that reminded everybody about a certain urgency that should be attended to at once. Right now as they speculated about the secret financer of the Italian Riviera’s cargo there were fires burning onboard that could ignite all that gunpowder.
 
At once, without any further prodding, the two gypsies, the Frenchman and the elf went to work stamping out the fires. Most of them were nothing more than smoldering wood. But there was one blaze that was disturbing. It had been billowing a thick black smoke but there was no visible flame as of yet. Something was on fire that they could not reach. The blaze seemed to be between the walls. What was particularly disturbing about it was that there was an air vent not two feet away from where the smoke was billowing. This vent fell all the way down to the ramp on the lowest level of the ship. It was below this iron-latticed ramp that the gunpowder kegs were stowed.
 
“What should we do?” the younger gypsy gasped as he realized the danger in the situation.
 
“We have no choice,” said Enrico and the gypsy leader in unison. The two of them looked at each other in surprise. Neither ever expected to be in agreement with the other. They both laughed. Enrico nodded in deference to allow the leader to continue. “We must jettison the explosives,” the leader said.
 
It was a burdensome task that took the better part of two hours to complete. Each barrel was pitched over the side where they were left to sink to the bottom. The elf hoped that the dangerous material would sift its way into the sandy bottom and forever be hidden from the world of man.
 
Once the last barrel was thrown overboard, everyone sighed somewhat easier. There were still small fires burning onboard but all of them seemed self-contained. The two gypsies were given the task of putting them out while the remaining three members of the crew tended to the navigation of the Italian Riviera. One Eye was at the helm with Enrico looking after the miscellaneous support chores to steering the vessel while Pappy was back in the crow’s nest. His task was once again to keep an eye out for all vessels in the vicinity.
 
Everything was the same as before except that in the interim many British sailors had lost their lives. Pappy sighed. So many have died along their path. There was almost one long continuous blood trail that led back to Woodhaven. How could he, Talla and Fender have generated so much death? They were elves - elves as in élan and eldritch. Slaughter and bloodshed were not their ways. If he were to survive this trip into mayhem he would spend the rest of his life trying to atone for what he was responsible for.
 
His eyes scanned the ceaseless waters of the Mediterranean. He was so weary of voyaging. He yearned for the robust firmness of land beneath his feet.
 
Now and then he was able to see Spain in the distant north. It was only a waifish apparition that disappeared with the next swell. One Eye had decided to keep well out at sea where they reduced the likelihood of being intercepted by either the British or the French. 
 
Regrettably in the end they would encounter someone. It was undeniable and inevitable. They would never be able to get through the Strait of Gibraltar without being detected and stopped by one warring faction or the other. It was inevitable.
 
Nighttime had come. Another day at sea had come to an end. The comet hung like a threat to the elf in the sky. Time was growing extremely short. 
 
As best as Pappy could calculate the date was December 18. That gave him less than a week to be on the Portuguese coast with the Harpy’s emeralds in his hands. Pappy clamped his teeth tight in anxiety.  

A wall of clouds had imperceptibly gobbled up the stars one by one. The comet was erased from the sky. It started to rain. The elf did not leave his watch.

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