Duke Forecastle - Part 15
The great ship went down faster than Forecastle would have believed possible. The sea poured into her ports, and she sank away without much complaint at all. No decks split apart, no yards snapped—she barely made a sound. It was as if Unsinkable II had simply set a new course and sailed away down below the waves.
The gangplanks only worked as a means of escape for a few more minutes, before they were hanging uselessly over the frigate’s rails, or clattering to the ship-of-the-line’s rapidly receding main deck. At that point, the Seaworld sailors aboard the frigate threw cargo nets over for their compatriots to climb up.
A swarm of sailors made it up and over the rails that way. Some took to the big warship’s longboats and launches, and some of the riggers climbed or swung across. But soon after that, they were casting coiled ropes down among the dozens of heads bobbing in the churning water.
He ordered the frigate’s two launches lowered, to help fish out survivors. But Captain Forecastle could see that many of the crew and passengers hadn’t made it up top in time.
And he hadn’t seen Cat Harping yet.
He could no longer tell if she was alive. He’d lost his innate sense of the Unsinkable II’s crew or the ship’s condition, since he was no longer captain of that vessel.
He stood in command of HMS Double Eagle. It was the only name that had sprung to mind when the ship had finally been seized, and he’d been forced to will it a designation. The proper thing to call it might have been HMS Nelson Chequer, but he supposed someone with a higher regard for the man could name some other ship that. (And HMS Hubris Unsinkable III was completely out of the question.)
Carrack had made it to the Eagle’s command deck, though, along with Collier and the third helmsman, Dromond. They’d been able to climb over directly to the quarterdeck. So he had officers, if he needed to do field promotions. Or shipboard, whatever.
“Where’s Cat!” he shouted at Carrack, as lightning flashed overhead.
Carrack looked grim and wet, shaking his head. “She was belowdecks, Cap’n! I don’t see as how she coulda got topside!”
“No!” was all Forecastle could say for a moment. He couldn’t do this alone. He couldn’t comprehend the task of commanding this ship without her. “We need her!”
Carrack shrugged. The two men stood there in the rain, listening to the shouts on the wind. “You could try your, uh...your pet! Sir!”
Forecastle blinked. “My... What, the bird?”
“Yessir!” The helmsman nodded.
“What do you—” What was the man saying? “What can the bird do about it?!”
“Fish ‘er out the water? Like it fished you, sir!”
His eyes went wide. “You’re saying the bird rescued me? When I was keelhauled?”
“Just...dove in and came up with you,” said Carrack, shrugging yet again. “Thought you knew about it.”
Forecastle made a fist and put a knuckle to his lips, staring down over the rail.
Then he raised his eyes skyward and shouted, “Eaguulllll!”
The warlord with the mustache had been automagically clapped in irons when his ship fell, becoming a prisoner of the Double Eagle rather than of the double eagle. But Captain Forecastle only learned about this when the man was dumped in a heap at his feet.
The bird performed the drop with a little J-hook flourish, and soared out over the rail.
“Bring me Cat Harping! Find a unit called ‘Cat Harping’ and rescue her! Give her a point of Luck!” the Captain ordered the flying unit. Its screech of acknowledgment was already muted by distance. He saw it dive, but could not see where it had hit the water.
“That’s a dreadful beast, Seaworld!” snarled the captive. Forecastle turned to look down on him, and his men stepped closer to the prisoner. He was sitting on his rump on the soaking wet planks, black manacles holding his wrists and ankles close together. “The Titans curse ye for puttin’ me in its grip.”
“How did you sink us?” asked the Captain, though he didn’t expect a useful answer. “How do you do it?”
The warlord shook his head. “I could tell you, but I’d rather show ye. Why’n’cha croak me, Seaworld? Anchormen don’t take ta bein’ held.”
Forecastle wiped rain from his brow and turned back to watch for the eagle to emerge. “Get him off the quarterdeck,” he ordered.
“A trick’s a fine thing ta play, Seaworld!” the prisoner shouted, as the stabbers dragged him toward the steps. “Fair enough when it’s turn’d about on ye! Don’tcha think?”
Forecastle didn’t try to decipher that. He was staring out at the rolling, windswept waves.
There weren’t all that many heads bobbing around out there now. By his sense of the Double Eagle’s complement, less than half of Unsinkable II’s 352 units were now aboard. The other half could not be accounted for by the boats and the swimmers. They must have lost at least ninety to the waves.
Where was Cat? For that matter, was the eagle in trouble? Had he just ordered it on an impossible mission? If Cat was already lost, would it stay down there looking for her until it drowned?
It had rescued him... That hadn’t sunk in quite yet. On whose orders would it have done that? Or was it just smart enough to know that it was the only unit that could have saved him at that point? Had it caused the bad luck of the keelhaul line snapping, then spent the point to be able to rescue him?
Titans, you have made a terrible mystery of this world.
He knew the eagle had not perished, since it was attached to his crew. But he couldn’t see it, and didn’t know its condition. It had been under the waves for a long time, and Cat had been down even longer. What did it—
Something broke the water, throwing up a huge splash. In the rain and the churning waves, he thought he saw two splashes or disturbances. What was that?
Then the unmistakable brown wings crested up and beat at the surface of the sea, scooping at the air. The double eagle cleared the water, and it was definitely carrying something: a human form, very limp.
In the end, he did the only thing he could have.
Cat Harping was aboard, but incapacitated and only sporadically conscious. No friendly sail was in sight. No more Seaworld units were in the water. The rest of the Anchorbar fleet was forming a crisp battle line, and moving in.
Between no chance and some tiny chance, Captain Forecastle ran for the sliver of hope. But he did indeed run. HMS Double Eagle pulled in her boats, set the gale winds behind her, and spent her last and only move. She fled the hex, to await the enemy’s turn.
Their destruction would only be delayed by an hour or so, but at least it would come to them in warm sunshine.