The crew followed Forecastle’s orders as faithfully as if he were Chequer, but nothing worked well. Nobody was ready for this boarding action.
The Unsinkable II had made a sharp, last-second turn to surprise the Anchorbar frigate with a grapple instead of firing on it, which resulted in a hard, scraping collision at both ships' bows. They’d gotten their foremast yards and rigging entangled, leaving the two warships fixed together in a V formation. In these high seas, the interlocking caused damage to both vessels, but it did mean that neither ship dared to fire her beams.
The crew’s grappling action was incomplete and messy, due to the conditions of weather and sea. They did eventually manage to heave the smaller ship alongside, but some of the hooklines were now snapping back on the sailors, as the two ships rose and fell on opposite sides of each wave.
Worst of all, most of Forecastle’s boarding squad hadn’t even made it on deck yet. Everything on the main deck was just a wet, dangerous, awkward mess.
In other words, it was a battle.
This was going about as well as any fight ever did. Disasters were a given, and it was time to stop blaming the bird—or anything else—for that. You could be sure the enemy had their woes as well. In fact, the bird was about to become one of them.
“Stack up, and draw!” Forecastle ordered his stabbers. There were only eighteen of them, looking grim and resigned in the spray and the rain. The enemy probably had fifty units to meet them on their main deck alone, but the time to go was now. The frigate could break free if they didn’t board it at once. His fighters drew their swords, and he called out, “Lay planks!”
In three teams of four, units of the deck crew heaved up the wooden gangplanks. As one of these teams shouldered past him on the slippery deck, “Captain” Forecastle put his hand to his cheek and bellowed skyward.
“Alight! Circle high!” he ordered.
All the way up in the main topgallant rigging, the double eagle screeched with both of its throats. For a moment, the shouting on deck paused. The brown, scraggly bird took off into the pouring rain and slowly circled the two warships.
Forecastle eyed it once more, noting its points: Special: Luckamancy Reserve - capacity: 28/30. There was a terrible lot of this ship’s misfortune and personal miseries stored up in that beast. He hoped it would amount to something in their favor, before they all drowned.
The deck bucked suddenly, and Forecastle looked down.
“Ahoy! Planks set, Captain!” called one of the crewmen. The gangplanks now hung in place, hooked over the gunwales with curved iron stays. But he could not see the other end of them; the frigate sat almost two decks lower in the water than Unsinkable II. At least they’d be attacking from the higher ground.
Almost as an afterthought, Forecastle drew his own sword. “Line up! Go on my mark!” Four more stabbers had hurriedly joined them from belowdecks, so the soldiers shuffled into lines of seven and eight.
Forecastle spotted the double eagle again, It was now flapping its way through the rain on the far side of the enemy’s sails. “Dive!” he called to it. “Do not engage! Make low passes! Just above their heads!”
Orders to beasts could be chancy, when they were complicated. But the bird definitely understood enough to dive at the frigate’s deck. As it disappeared over his line of sight, Forecastle called for his units to charge.
Storming an enemy ship full of angry and well-trained soldiers, in a pitching sea and heavy gale, was as far removed from his little shipboard exercises in the sun and calm waters as tea with the Queen.
At first he froze on the gangplank, looking down. The frigate’s deck swarmed with Anchormen, and they all seemed to be holding a weapon. Not just the soldiers, but all of the crew had blades. The cold, foamy sea churned far below his boots, and he couldn’t seem to unlock his knee to move his back foot.
His stabbers advanced down the three wobbling, shifting planks and threw themselves into the fray. Swords clacked and bodies converged. But he couldn’t imagine himself doing the same thing. It just seemed impossible, like trying to will himself to fly to the moon, or to turn into a tree.
But then the first of his men croaked, and he simply did it. The gangplank bounced precariously as he ran over to the frigate and jumped into the fight. Swords flashed on high. He held his own weapon at the ready, looking for an opening.
His stabbers formed a wall of six in front of him, each engaged in an even match-up with an enemy seafarer. He turned his gaze left and right, ready to jump to the aid of whichever one lost the advantage first. But all the duels seemed undecided.
And then there was a shout that seemed to come from everyone on deck at once, and all six duels ended. It was almost like a dance fight. The Anchormen ducked and cringed as the double eagle swooped over them, talons extended. The bird’s wings were so broad that there was actually a moment when the rain stopped as it passed over Forecastle’s head.
Then all six of his soldiers ran their opponents through, in near-perfect choreography. Six critical hits. Six Anchormen fell to the deck, croaked.
Forecastle lowered his sword and looked up at the bird in wonder, as it climbed back into the sky. He blinked to see its points: Special: Luckamancy Reserve - capacity: 22/30
“Oh,” he said, almost conversationally, to nobody in particular. “It worked.”
He hadn’t actually expected the Luckamancy Reserve to have this exact effect. But he’d certainly been counting on the Anchorbar crew to have the same superstitious response to a swooping double eagle that the Seaworld sailors would have.
Now that he understood that the bird’s special could be spent this way, though, this battle was about to change.
His stabbers advanced a few steps, planting their boots among the fallen. Now there was room for him to find an opponent. Instead, he held back to take stock of the battle. To his left, the stack of eight was still holding its own, with some wounded but none fallen. To his right, the stack of seven was down to three, buckling under a mad crush of fifteen or more Anchormen. Two more Seaworld stabbers were crossing the gangplank in relief behind him.
He raised his sword and pointed to the right. “There! Help them!” he ordered.
The bird’s shriek of acknowledgement floated across the wind, as it looped around for another low pass. The shriek alone seemed to help the momentum of the entire fight. The three men to his right stayed up on their feet somehow, while the stack to his left began pressing forward.
This time, he watched the bird make its dive, watching for the moment when its points would change. He wanted to know just what was happening, so he could best employ it against the enemy.
This dive was not a surprise to anyone in the fight. The Anchormen couldn’t help but keep glancing at the double eagle no matter where it was in the sky, which distracted and lessened their effectiveness even when it wasn’t diving at them. Very good.
The avian menace came in low and fast over the rails. Forecastle paid no heed to the Anchormen, but he thought he saw the crowd part as the sailors lurched away and ducked. His eyes were glued to the beast’s points. It shrieked hideously as it passed over the frigate and pulled up and banked sharply to avoid colliding with Unsinkable II’s hull.
Sure enough, its Luckamancy Reserve stat dropped down by four as it passed over the heads of the beleaguered Seaworld stabbers:
Unit: Double Eagle
Class: Heavy Flyer
Move: 2/26 (crewed to: HMS Unsinkable II)
Special: Capture - capacity: 1, transport: 0
Special: Luckamancy Reserve - capacity: 18/30
He couldn’t tell what the eagle had done, or why it had cost four points instead of three, but those three fighters still held their ground, without relief. They must have taken a defensive bonus of some kind when—
Someone had just wounded the double eagle! Forecastle stepped forward with his stack of fighters, as they pressed the advantage. But his eyes were scanning the deck for who or what could have struck the bird.
He hadn’t seen any sign that anyone had engaged it, which left spells or archery. The frigate had not fired its beams, nor had it shown any sign of archery units aboard. But maybe some archery units were hidden in reserve...
He was standing there, stupidly looking up into the rigging for concealed archers, when a crossbow bolt from the quarterdeck zipped right in front of his nose.
Four. Four Luckamancy points.
He pivoted right, and for the first time in this fight he considered the question of what kind of leadership he might be facing here.
The man in the burgundy coat, the one he’d seen from his quarters, with the curly hair and the brown mustache, stood on the quarterdeck. He was turning the crannequin on an enormous crossbow, and coldly staring Forecastle in the eye.