Duke Forecastle, Part 7
Unsinkable II hadn‘t been a particularly jolly place before the double eagle landed, but now the ship might as well have been crewed by uncroaked.
The day after the big bird arrived, three fights had broken out below decks over wildly improbable throws of dice and hands of cards. A majority believed that the double eagle was to blame. Admiral Chequer had banned gambling, and pulled most of the liquor ration as both a punishment and a precaution.
Four subsequent days of cleaning grapefruit-sized bird droppings off the sails, yards and planks–and themselves, if they were particularly unlucky–with naught but water to drink, made for a silent and ill-tempered group up on deck. They fed the bird about half of each day‘s catch, which made meals both more expensive to Seaworld‘s treasury and worse to eat. They were sailing blindly into enemy territory. Nobody had a happy thought to share.
Duke Forecastle didn‘t like the bird any more than anybody else aboard, but it was this effect on the crew that really bothered him. Whether or not he had any real authority, they were his crew, and he wasn‘t sure they could function this way. Or maybe this was how the bird‘s effect on luck worked, by dampening the mood and diminishing the crew‘s abilities, thereby imposing a penalty on their personal dice.
He didn‘t know and couldn‘t guess, but they were all thoroughly miserable. He hadn‘t made Cat Harping laugh since before its arrival. And not for lack of trying. For a couple of days, he‘d stepped up his antics and his attempts to make light of everything, until the Admiral finally broke his legendary reserve and snapped at him.
“The Queen‘s court has need of a fool, Fawksull! Her flagship has not! Upon our return, I shall meet with Her Majesty and recommend you for the office!”
Forecastle kept his mouth shut after that, and spent more time in his ward room, reading and staring out to sea.
Hashtag‘s didn‘t have a lot of advice about making the double eagle leave. You left it a pail of fresh water hanging from the top of the mainmast, took it buckets of raw fish, morning, noon and night, and you hoped for the best. If it took to the air, then you could try to sail out of the hex. Usually that was impossible. Certainly it was impossible with a fleet in tow.
The cursed thing would tease, though. Sometimes it would spread its wings and take to the air, and the sailors would glance up in silent hope. But usually it was just changing which yard it intended to perch on and which sail it would soil next. Occasionally it would even dive into the water to snatch up a fish or squid it had spotted from up there. But it always stayed near the ship and did not fly for very long. Mostly it sat there, squawking and/or crapping a few times an hour, day and night.
Somewhere up above the bird, above even the sky, there was a Titan who‘d created this beast. Forecastle wondered what the cosmic purpose of such a creature could be.
“I think I‘m going to feed it,” he said one hot afternoon, after Seaworld‘s turn had ended.
Cat Harping glanced up at the bird, which was on the mizzen topsail yard, right above their heads. While it was there, they watched it closely and often. This was a lower perch than it usually took, but it was still a lot higher in the rigging than Forecastle had managed to climb so far. On his two shaky attempts to climb up the shrouds, he had only made it as far as the main yard, the lowest one on the mainmast. That had been quite far enough for his comfort.
But maybe it was time for an adventure. Time to make something happen.
“I‘m sure that‘ll go well,” Cat said. “Especially with the way luck is on this ship. You‘d better order a launch into the water to fish you out. Or yer body. Whichever.”
“I do not get to give orders unless there is a very good reason.” He glanced at Admiral Chequer‘s back and grinned at her. As usual, the Admiral was listening and ignoring everything. “Especially as regards the launches. And this is not a very good reason. I‘ll be the first to admit it. I‘m just bored. And it needs to be done. So,” he said, putting his hands on his hips and looking up into the billowing sail, “I think I‘ll do it. If I can get up there.”
“Get a rigger to carry the bucket, s‘my advice,” shrugged Cat. “You‘ll need both yer hands. Try not to fall on me.”
The view from the mizzen yard didn‘t contain much that couldn‘t be seen from the quarterdeck, but it was somehow still breathtaking. Being up in the rigging was weirdly free and different, after so much sameness. The surface of the sea sparkled at him.
Forecastle gripped the rough hemp ropes. He kept the arches of his boots planted and locked upon the all-too thin and flexible hardwood of the mizzen yard. The seas were calm in this hex, but the sway of the ship up here was less gentle than on deck. He held his balance cautiously, and glanced back at the fleet.
Counting the flagship, the force now boasted nine ships and twenty-two masts. The warships that had joined them along the way were arranged in a rough diamond pattern to the northeast. They were making for Fenga Papit, the one-city colony that they‘d most recently lost to the Anchormen. The Admiral hoped to retake it.
The move should draw some kind of response from the Anchorbar fleet, or they might run into Anchorbar ships defending the city. At any rate, it would be action. Forecastle would have a battle to fight. Maybe even on land.
For now, though, he had a bird to feed.
The rigger‘s name was Chronot. He held a steel pail with a rope handle in one hand, and kept the other hand completely free, doing nothing, when it could just as well be grabbing a line or the mizzen mast. Why wouldn‘t he hold on to something?
Forecastle nodded, and pulled himself up the ladder rungs of the much thinner mizzen topmast shroud. The canvas of the mizzen topsail undulated in front of him, doing him the immense favor of blocking most of his view. Each rung was easy enough, and he concentrated on placing the next step, grabbing the next rung. Chronot had given him some words of encouragement in the beginning, but knew enough not to say a word when the Duke was actually climbing.
Forecastle froze on the ropes, though, when the eagle let out a squawk. This close to the bird, the sound was chilling and horrible. He looked up and met two of its four yellow eyes. Still about twenty rungs above him, the thing was huge, monstrous. Its unkempt brown feathers looked more like a coat of fur. As he watched it, the second head swung around and examined him as well.
He took a breath, gripped the ropes tightly, willed himself to take another rung...
...and found he couldn‘t do it.
He shut his eyes and hung there. He needed a moment. He took several. As the moments passed, he found he really didn‘t feel like opening his eyes, and that feeling continued.
“Sir?” said Chronot after several moments.
“Rigger...” said Forecastle hoarsely. A breeze blew over his face, seeming to freeze the sweat to his forehead.
“Sir, would you like to go back down to the deck for a while? I‘m sure–”
“Rigger, please!” snapped Forecastle.
He took three more deep breaths, in through his nose, out through his lips, and opened his eyes.
The next rung was in reach.
He grabbed it.
Reaching the cross-tees was good enough. That was fine. He didn‘t need to climb all the way up on the spar itself. He looped both legs through the lines, held on to the mast, and sat on the solid oak boards. The ship's sway was even worse at this height. And there were riggers who climbed all the way up the mainmast. Titans, how could they manage it?
“Okay,” he breathed, reaching an arm behind him. “Fish.”
Chronot handed up the bucket. The double eagle was very close and very interested in him now, both of its feathered heads staring him down. He wondered if the heads would fight each other for the fish, despite the fact that it would end up in the same stomach either way.
It turned out that the heads worked together, almost like hands. Both beaks plucked the big cod from his gingerly outstretched fingers, and he quickly jerked his hand away. Then the two heads cooperated to tear the fish into shreds of flesh and guts, taking turns swallowing until the thing was gone.
They looked at him expectantly, and he hurried to hold out another one.
So it went, from the top of the bucket to the bottom. The last fish was a little flat blue thing, barely larger than his palm, but he offered it anyway. Only one of the heads bobbed down and grabbed it. He started thinking about the best way to climb down again.
Then the head that hadn‘t taken the last fish called out a gravelly caw into the wind, and he felt...something he hadn‘t in a while. Not since the dwagon fight.
He was leading a stack.
He looked up, and realized that he knew the double eagle‘s points. The head that had taken the last fish bent all the way down to him, and he instinctively reached out and scratched the little feathers on the top of its skull.
It was a Seaworld unit now. He had tamed it.