Duke Forecastle, Part 6
The double eagle alighted upon the Unsinkable II‘s mainmast at sunset, on the evening of her fiftieth turn out.
Duke Forecastle had never heard the ship fall so still and silent as when the great two-headed bird was wheeling high overhead. It made five complete circles above the ship before pulling up almost daintily, like a curtsey. For a beast twice the size of a man, with a wingspan equal to the width of the stern, it showed remarkable grace.
When it landed, sinking its iron-hard talons into the wood of the main topgallant yard, nearly every sailor on deck groaned. Admiral Chequer, for once, looked squarely down at his boots. One of the bird‘s heads rasped a throaty screech in the direction of the setting sun, while the other began to preen.
“Turn fifty since home,” Cat Harping announced grimly. This earned a fresh round of groans, some angry. Cat kept the navigational logs, so it was natural that she‘d be the first to note the ominous date of the bird‘s arrival.
Two of the crew began to argue with her that although this was the fiftieth day of Unsinkable II‘s maiden mission, this was not the ship‘s fiftieth day at sea.
“We spent 3 turns in port, repairin‘ the Penman,” pointed out a runner named Stassen, “S‘not the maiden voyage, either, since we made port. Maiden voyage was complete, an‘ a success.”
“Not a success,” said Chequer solemnly, lifting his head and affixing a hard stare at the sailor. “We lost eight to the dwagon. And it‘s still our maiden mission. The turn count‘s correct, blast Fate.”
Forecastle looked up through the rigging at the sea bird. Some of the riggers had moved toward it cautiously, reverently. None of them would approach close enough to touch it.
He knew the double eagle from Hashtag‘s Guide, of course. They were solitary predators that occasionally rode on top of ships to carry them into new territory. But the book didn‘t say much about the lore surrounding the creatures. And the crew didn‘t like to discuss them, a fact that Forecastle had learned to respect.
Still, in muttered comments and drunken tales below decks, they inevitably did talk about the birds.
Double eagles were supposed to bring both good and bad Luckamancy, but mostly bad. When one perched on your ship, it allegedly guaranteed that not all aboard would make it safely home. If you acquired one on your maiden voyage, then the ship would not see its home port again for a thousand turns, if ever. And if one came to your ship on a milestone date of your voyage, such as the midpoint turn, or a round number of turns out of port, then the ship would soon be in for serious trouble.
“Take it something!” ordered the Admiral. The crew grasped his intent, and Stassen rushed off with a couple of others to fetch some of the day‘s catch of fish.
Forecastle understood the order, too. The only thing worse than acquiring a double eagle this way was harming one. If you wounded or croaked one of the creatures, it would seal your doom for certain, and likely the fate of your ship as well. “If one ever attacks you, go limp,” one sailor had advised him. “Don‘t fight it. Let it carry you off, if that‘s what it wants. Nobody‘ll help you fight it.”
So while your ship had a double eagle aboard, the only thing you could do was try and earn its “blessing.” Feed it and care for it, and it might eventually fly off on its own, leaving your ship with a powerful boost of good Luckamancy.
He looked around the deck. The crew slouched and muttered, or hung limply in the rigging. Some of them stared up at the big brown bird, but they wouldn‘t make eye contact with each other.
Very, very quietly, Duke Forecastle sighed. Nothing about these stories rang true for him. In land warfare, there were no equivalent superstitions. You didn‘t feed ferals and let them live in your cities; you put a sword through them and had them for supper.
Absently, his hand fell to the hilt of his short sword as he squinted up at the bird. It didn‘t look like doom to him; it looked pretty beatable, perhaps even soloable. And pretty tasty, too.
Shame that Chequer would likely throw him overboard before he got to try one bite. He‘d been in the Admiral‘s good graces for almost three dozen turns now, ever since the fight with the sea dwagon. There was certainly no sense in throwing that away now, just for a plate of roast fowl.
For Forecastle, the battle to save the HMS Penman from the sea dwagon had been the highlight of the voyage so far. It was the first (and so far only) time he had managed to prove himself useful to the fleet.
By the time Unsinkable II had come around to aid Penman, she was in serious danger of sinking. The dwagon had slithered halfway up the mainmast, eaten two or three riggers, and was using its weight to pull the warship over on its side. Water was already rushing into some of her lower ports and vents.
So Unsinkable II and Friend could not fire their beams at the beast without the risk of sending their compatriots to the bottom. The beast was smart enough to keep its silver underbelly (which was armored like plate mail) mostly aimed toward the few stabbers on Penman‘s decks who could engage it.
Forecastle didn‘t know what Chequer planned to do, and he didn‘t ask. On his own initiative, he ordered up a team of eight of the non-seafarer stabbers he‘d been drilling. They emerged from the hatchway and assembled on the main deck. He stacked with them and had them hoist up a gangplank on their shoulders.
The Admiral could easily see Forecastle‘s stack from up on the quarterdeck, and voiced no objections about the maneuver, as he calmly called out his own orders. The Duke stood there with his men, waiting for a chance to do something with them. He had the vague plan of boarding Penman to fight the dwagon from her decks.
But it was only when he peered to the fore to see how close they were that he realized that Chequer intended to ram the monster. About a third of the beast was in the water, and it looked like Chequer was going to try to strike it with the bow of the ship. That might draw the dwagon‘s attention away from Penman, and bring it in range of the harpooners and stabbers on deck.
Except that it wouldn‘t, Forecastle was sure of that. And unless the helmsman held to the perfect course and speed, they were just as likely to collide with Penman and damage both ships, maybe sinking their sister ship in the process.
He stared at the writhing ribbon of flesh. The sea dwagon opened its jaws and blasted the Penman‘s main deck with seawater, scattering the sailors there and washing at least five of them down the tilted planks and into the ocean. The Unsinkable II continued to close on the stricken vessel at full speed.
The entry in Hashtag‘s about sea dwagons burned in his brain. He knew what he had to do.
“Set down that gangplank!” he ordered, then unstacked with his stabbers and scrambled for one of the longboats. “Pooners! To starboard launch 1!” he shouted.
The Unsinkable II‘s four longboats and two launches hung from her rails, sealed with rubber-coated canvas tarpaulins. Forecastle leaned over the gunwale near the starboard bow and sliced through the tarp with his sword. Then he leapt over the side and into the launch boat, right through the hole he‘d just made. He cut and tore the tarp further, slicing through the lashings and peeling it away.
There were four harpoons stowed in the boat, and four harpooners climbed over the rail and into the boat with him, taking up the weapons. At Forecastle‘s motioned command, four more sailors took up rowing positions and secured the oars in their oarlocks. The battle was now close enough to hear the roaring and shouting over the wind and waves, as well as the snapping of wooden timbers.
The ship‘s boats could be used for hunting and combat, in addition to debarkation. By attacking in groups, boats with pooners aboard could bring down all but the largest ferals. Unfortunately, Hashtag‘s warned never to attempt this with certain beasts such as card sharks, yoctopuses and sea dwagons, because they were very good at sinking small watercraft.
And sea dwagons in particular, it said, always attacked the smallest boats first.
“Lower us into the water!” shouted Forecastle to the men on deck. There was probably some obscure seafarer way to phrase that order but he‘d never been told it, or didn‘t remember it if he had. His intent was clear enough, anyway. Knots were untied and pulleys squeaked. The launch wobbled. The sea rushing by below them got closer.
They were dangling just a few feet above the waves, close enough to feel the spray from the bow wave when Chequer‘s muffled voice shouted, “Belay! Belay! Disband you, lubber!”
The ropes stopped. The Admiral‘s bicorn hat poked over the rail and Chequer eyed his “first mate” with rage. “Fawksell! What is this? I‘ll have you cut for chum!”
“I‘m getting the beast‘s attention!” Forecastle shouted up. He motioned downward with his palm. “Let us down! Put us in the water!”
“You sun-mad mudfoot!” The Admiral disappeared from the rail, but Forecastle could hear the order, “Pull ‘em up!”
The ropes squeaked, and the launch boat rose by a few inches. He looked at the looming battle noticing that he could now see each little aquamarine scale on the dwagon‘s head, each splintered spar on the Penman‘s mangled masts. Ramming the dwagon with this ship would hurt the monster. It might even croak it. But unless the beast took the force of the collision, the Penman would sink on impact.
He raised his sword. “Hold fast!” he ordered the sailors in his boat. “Hold on to something! Tight!”
He could only cut one set of ropes at a time, and he figured that having the front of the boat hit the water first was their best chance. He knelt and hooked his legs under the forward bench, and sliced the ropes with one quick chop.
It was worse than he‘d imagined. He ended up with his head under cold seawater, crushed and pinned by the weight of sailors. Its prow sticking into the water, the boat was quickly whipped around and dragged upside down, hanging from the remaining bundle of ropes and pulleys.
Later, it would occur to him that cutting the stern free first, so the boat could drag along beside the ship by its bow, would have been the wiser choice.
As it was, the instincts of the seafarers he‘d ordered into this fiasco were sharp. The stern of the launch was swiftly lowered into the water and the sailors did something to right the boat that Forecastle couldn‘t understand, even when they explained it to him later. They were left afloat, with just an inch or two of water remaining in the bottom. The sailor at the stern released the hitch, and the launch boat broke free of the Unsinkable II. The three men who‘d gone overboard were fished out of the water. Two oars and one harpoon had been lost.
Forecastle coughed out a frightening amount of saltwater, tried to stand up, and realized that both of his legs were broken below the knee. He could barely raise his head, to see the ship passing by on its way toward collision.
“Throw at it,” he sputtered.
“Can‘t hit it from here,” said the soaking wet harpooner standing up in the bow.
“Row, then!” coughed Forecastle. “Just hit it once and draw its attention! That‘s all we have to do!”
They tripled up on the remaining oars and the pooners lined up for a throw. It was a race, but Forecastle couldn‘t see anything. He had to take the rest of the fight face down in the bow, holding the gunwale and trying to ignore the pain throbbing around his new third and fourth knees.
Their first two throws missed, short of the target. But when (he was later told) Unsinkable II was less than a ship‘s length from impact, a pooner named Tiffany had heaved the final harpoon about as far as you could throw one, and landed the barest scratch of a hit on the beast.
“You‘d‘ve thought I‘d really hurt it,” she told him after the fight, as they were rowing back to the ship. “It let go of Penman‘s riggings and made right for us. Or, ah, it would have. Ship‘s bow caught the blighter aside his head just as ‘e turned. Boom. Last thing it ever saw was the beautiful sight of Her Majesty‘s Navy‘s Admiral‘s flagship, the Hubris Unsinkable II. Not a bad way to go.” Her voice was thick with pride. This had been her first battle, of any kind.
“How‘s Penman?” croaked Forecastle, his throat still raw from coughing up parts of the ocean.
“Righted, mostly. Heavy damage but she can limp to port,” said the pooner. “Uh, sir?”
“Yeah?” said Forecastle.
“You think Admiral Chequer‘ll let you back aboard?”
He had no answer for her.
Chequer had demanded to see the passage in Hashtag‘s about sea dwagons.
To his credit, once he had, he immediately perceived the wisdom in Forecastle‘s idea to draw the dwagon‘s attention with a smaller boat. The Admiral did have several specific and lengthy complaints about how it was done; Forecastle got a thorough dressing-down about procedures and on-deck orders. But that came with a commendation, instead of an execution.
The Admiral relayed a report of the bait-and-ram tactic for fighting sea dwagons home by hat, so the rest of the Royal Navy could hear of it. And he began to treat “Fawksell” with a great deal more respect, even hints of warmth. Evening meals became cordial even before the wine had fully kicked in. And when they talked of maritime matters, Forecastle wasn‘t completely lost (or bored) any more.
The group limped along at Penman‘s limited pace, and six turns later Forecastle saw the port of Uwotmate. It was his first visit to a colony. The trees and animals were strange, and the governor‘s hospitality was grand. It felt strange to have his feet on stationary ground again.
Stranger still, he found he was glad to shove off again. He‘d decided there were worse ways to serve the Queen than in the Royal Navy. Life aboard the flagship was all right when the Admiral actually liked you.
And right up until the incident with the bird, Chequer had.