Duke Forecastle, Part 8
Duke Forecastle, Part 8
If there’d been a moment of triumph associated with taming the double eagle, it lasted only as long as it took Forecastle to turn his head. Amazed at the sudden affectionate docility of the big ugly bird, he’d grinned over his shoulder at Chronot, who hung in the shroud just behind and beneath him.
The rigger’s eyes and mouth were open wide in stark horror.
“It’s all right...” began Forecastle. But Chronot clambered down and away, moving over the ropes faster than the Duke could run on flat ground.
“Titan’s turn turtle, he tamed it!” Angry exclamations came from the rigging of the nearby mainmast. “Ye’ve drowned us all, mudfoot!” “Disband you!” “Lubber!”
The ship swayed and the timbers groaned. Most of the riggers had moved away and out of sight. Those he could still see refused to make eye contact with him. He looked down at the deck, far, far below. He was going to have to climb back down alone.
The eagle decided to squawk again. This time, for some reason, it didn’t even startle him. He looked up, examining it.
He really didn’t hate the thing. And it clearly liked him. He reached up and rubbed its leathery foot, and it snuffed. Its toes were thick and muscular. Perhaps he could get it to pick him up and fly him down to the quarterdeck? It was certainly big enough. He examined its points.
Unit: Double Eagle
Class: Heavy Flyer
Move: 0/26 (crewed to: HMS Unsinkable II)
Special: Capture - capacity: 1, transport: 0
Special: Luckamancy Reserve - capacity: 9/30
So the eagle was not a mount unit; he couldn’t climb on it and fly down to the deck. It did have the capacity to take a single prisoner, but not to leave the hex with one. So could he order it to pick him up and land him safely below? He didn’t actually know if the “Capture” capability could serve that function. Further, he didn’t know if he felt any safer trying that than climbing down on his own.
...And what was “Luckamancy Reserve?” He’d never heard of that special.
“Fawk-SULL! On deck, front and center!” The breeze and sails muted Chequer’s voice, but Forecastle glanced straight down the mast and met his commanding officer’s eyes, even through all the ropes and yards. The man was infuriated.
At this point, there was no choice and no time to experiment. He had a direct order to follow. Hanging the empty pail on a belaying pin, he swung his legs over the cross-tee and threw his feet blindly into the shroud. One of his heels caught on a rope rung, and he planted the other one beside it. He stepped down, felt around with his boot, and caught the next rung.
His movements were nothing like Chronot’s or the other riggers. He knew he looked the fool, wobbling his way down the ropes. But per his order, he did make steady, determined progress. It was actually easier to do when you didn’t have time to think about it.
He didn’t even pause at the mizzen yard, but pulled himself right over into the mizzen shroud and kept descending. Every rung took him closer to the deck, and made the idea of a fall a little less daunting. If he slipped now, he was at least sure to land on deck and not in the water, where he’d likely drown. He’d already had his legs broken once on this trip and survived. Short of actually croaking, he supposed he could tolerate anything.
Duke Forecastle’s hands were getting rope blisters and his knees shook, but he kept going. Rung, step, rung, step.
He paused and glanced down. The quarterdeck was close now, almost within safe leaping distance. Chequer had his hands behind his back, scowling up at him. Cat Harping and several other sailors stood just behind them.
He resumed his descent. Just as he was thinking about where to place his feet on the rail, two of the sailors ran forward and seized his feet out from under him.
They tugged him down from the shroud, despite his determined grip. His hands came away from the ropes, and he fell. His back and hip slammed against the quarterdeck railing. The two men dragged him by his legs over the planks of the deck, then dumped him in a heap at Admiral Chequer’s polished black boots.
He could hear riggers laughing and cheering in the sails above.
Bruised but not actually broken, he scrambled to his feet and stood at attention, meeting the Admiral’s fierce gaze. “Sir!”
“What was that action?” demanded the Admiral, pointing skyward.
“I’ve...tamed the sea bird, sir!”
“On whose order or authority did you do that, Warlord? Certainly not mine!”
“It was unintentional, sir! But...” Forecastle clamped his lips shut, exactly one syllable later than he should have, he knew. He held his silence.
“But what, you dirt-loving worm?”
Forecastle shook his head. With Chequer being this enraged, saying what was on his mind was only going to make things worse. But he didn’t see a choice except to answer. “But...it...may have been under your order, sir.” He glanced at the cross-armed sailors who had pulled him to the deck. “Your, um, classified orders, sir?”
Chequer had ordered him to find out the reason why having a non-seafarer in the crew might prove an advantage, and also to keep quiet about it. As he’d been climbing down the shroud, it’d occurred to Forecastle that this could be the answer.
Hashtag’s Guide never once mentioned that the double eagle was tamable. It didn’t talk about taming at all. Seafarers did not do that. They could not tame a feral unit, as far as he knew. Troop ships sometimes traveled with mounts aboard, but naval vessels did not keep beasts for scouting or fighting. That was not a part of naval life or warfare.
At least, until now. And perhaps that was Anchorbar’s secret. Maybe every vessel kept a flight of eagles to assault an enemy too superstitious to fight back. Rather than being upset about it, Chequer ought to be figuring out how they could get more of the birds aboard. Perhaps they were about to fight an air power...at sea.
But the Admiral had his teeth clenched, his jaw set. He stared down Forecastle for a long time, before he finally spoke. “Make it leave,” he said. “Order it to give us its blessing and go.”
Forecastle shook his head. “I’m sorry, sir. It’s a Seaworld unit, and it’s not our turn. It doesn’t have any move.” He shook his head again. “And it’s actually crewed to the ship, Admiral. I believe its move will contribute to the Unsinkable II’s in the morning. If that’s any consolation.”
Admiral Chequer stuck out his jaw as Forecastle talked, showing him a set of yellow bottom teeth.
“I don’t know if I can order it to bless the ship, sir,” Forecastle added. “But I’ll try.”
“You’ll do naught!” snapped the Admiral. “You’ve done enough! More than enough!” He pointed a bony finger at the Duke’s face. “You wish to lay the blame for this at my feet, do you? Well, very well! I’ll take it! T’was my fault for letting you out of yer wardroom at all! And I’ll not repeat the blunder, either! Sailor!”
Both of the sailors who had pulled him down from the shroud stepped forward.
“Keelhaul him across the beam,” ordered the Admiral, turning his back and indicating Forecastle with a thumb. “After that, he is confined to quarters for the duration.”
Forecastle watched in a kind of ignorant daze as members of the crew looped a length of thick rope over the bowsprit, playing it out in teams of four until it formed an enormous lasso that extended under the water and encircled the whole ship. They walked the above-deck portion of this loop back to the waist of the ship, where her nominal First Mate stood with his hands bound in front of him.
“Ye ready, bird fancier?”
He nodded to the sailor dumbly. He had only a vague understanding of the term “keelhaul” and what it was they planned to do to him. Only after they had lashed this rope to the one that tied his hands, and three sailors lifted him over their heads, did he begin to grasp what he was in for.
“Take a big breath!” one of the sailors told him. And they heaved him over the side.
He did manage to bob up to the surface and do exactly that, just a mere split second before the line was yanked. The rope he was fastened to slammed his hands and shoulder against the hardwood hull of the Unsinkable II, and pulled him under the water.
The confusion gave way to pain and fear, as he was dragged further down below. Sounds became muted scrapes and bumps, and the green ocean water went dark in the shade of the ship above. Just below her waterline, the ship was covered in sharp, rocklike barnacles. They cut through the cloth of his uniform and into his skin as he was pulled along by his hands, which were getting the absolute worst of the abuse.
They’d taken off his boots but left his feet free, and he kicked weakly against the hull as he went. This didn’t seem to have any effect on his body position, but it injured his feet.
They tugged the rope in heaves, which in his terrified imagination seemed to be coming farther and farther apart. He closed his eyes, ducked his head between his arms, and held on to the air in his lungs for the worth of his life. He tried to pray to the Titans that he would make it to the other side, but couldn’t hear his own thoughts over the scraping of the rope.
And then he slammed into the keel of the ship, and the rope broke.
More specifically, the lashing tying his hands to the hauling line came apart. He was left hanging free and alone in deep water, directly beneath the bulk of the enormous warship.
He coughed out half his air in surprise, and almost breathed in seawater for his final breath. With horror, he realized that he needed that rope that had dragged him down. It had to drag him back up again! He opened his eyes and reached out in the near darkness, trying to find and grab it.
He couldn’t see or feel it. So he kicked his legs furiously, until his head clunked hard against the hull. He knew which way was up now, which way was air. He frog-kicked and swam along the hull as best he could with bound hands. He couldn’t have said which way he was traveling. Maybe it was lengthwise along the ship, but he just kicked and kicked.
The need in his lungs became desperate, but he clamped his mouth shut and kept kicking, until he finally could see light. Dimly, he noticed that it wasn’t the pale green light of shallow seawater.
This light was white. And soon it was everywhere.