The fight on the frigate’s main deck pitched in time with the pitch of the warship itself. Like any infantry skirmish, units struck and parried, clashed and broke apart. But a slip here could be fatal, and the troops paid as much heed to their footing as to their opponent’s blade.
With his sword held high, Captain Forecastle peered through the rain to see how his fighters were faring. He made sure to keep one eye on his counterpart: the mustachioed warlord standing on the quarterdeck above.
By the plain facts and numbers of his tactical picture, he had every reason to call an immediate retreat. He was a level 3, land-bound warlord, leading a boarding action at sea. Up on the quarterdeck, an archery-capable level 5 enemy officer was using a heavy crossbow to take potshots at him. And it was possible that the Anchormen had even better leadership than that aboard. They certainly had superior numbers, by more than twice over.
But intuition in battle is a wondrous thing. He couldn’t have stood beside a map in a war room and explained it to another warlord, but they were winning this action. His stabbers struck hard and true. The enemy sailors cringed and moaned and stumbled.
Indeed, the appearance of an enemy warlord on deck only provided him with a clear point of strategic focus.
“Push for the command deck!” he barked to his stabbers.
As the steel clacked and the boots shuffled around him, he watched the Anchorbar warlord calmly and methodically set aside the crossbow’s crannequin mechanism. The big man raised the stock to chest level, and placed a new bolt into the groove.
He seemed to shoot the weapon even before he was ready, without taking careful aim. Sparks flew in front of Forecastle’s face, and something shiny tumbled past his right ear. The swordswoman in front of him cried out as the tip of a sword suddenly poked out of her back. Then the blade was withdrawn, and she fell.
With the keen warrior’s reflexes that had been his since the turn he’d popped, Forecastle identified the target, took a step forward into the gap, beat aside the enemy sailor’s blade and skewered him through the gut. The remaining stabbers closed ranks in front of him, and he stepped back, trying not to trip over the fallen body.
Only then did he fully process what he’d seen. His stabber had been raising her sword to bring it down on her opponent, in a croaking blow. But the crossbow bolt had struck the sword a mere arm-span in front of Forecastle’s head. This deflected the bolt away, but disarmed the soldier, leaving her vulnerable to the sailor’s strike.
He glanced up to see the Anchorbar officer fitting the crannequin to his crossbow once more.
“Low pass!” Forecastle shouted.
After the wounding of his double eagle, he’d willed it to circle out of clear line-of-sight until the warlord took his next shot. Not one sailor had dared to strike at the bird, and the frigate had not shot a beam at it, so the man with the crossbow was its only real threat.
Of its own accord, the double eagle chose to approach from over the bowsprit. It flew over the deck lengthwise, under the sails and through the rigging. Forecastle was dumbstruck. It seemed to time its wingbeats perfectly to miss all of the lines and shrouds. Half of the enemy sailors dropped to their knees—or even flat on their faces—as it screeched just above their heads.
In that moment of opportunity, the Seaworld stabbers advanced and croaked a dozen of their opponents. The group he was stacked with made several strides in the direction of the command deck.
The double eagle reached that deck in seconds, of course. But as it rose up over the edge rail, the warlord with the mustache took a swing at it with his heavy crossbow. He struck the bird on its left wing, sending it wheeling off into the rain. Several ratty brown feathers fell to the deck.
The eagle flapped around to the far side of Unsinkable II. Forecastle glanced apprehensively at its points:
Unit: Double Eagle
Class: Heavy Flyer
Move: 2/26 (crewed to: HMS Unsinkable II)
Special: Capture - capacity: 1, transport: 0
Special: Luckamancy Reserve - capacity: 8/30
Only 8 points of Luckamancy left, which was alarming enough. But it was only at half hits, too. The bird had done a superb job of turning the fight in Seaworld’s favor, but if he kept risking it this way, he would deplete its power, and possibly lose the unit.
Forecastle did not want to lose this unit. He was, in fact, terrified of losing it. He didn’t know how true the sailors’ yarns might actually be. What would happen to his ship if the bird croaked now? He was determined not to find that out.
His stack fought their way forward along the port gunwale, grunting and shoving and splashing in the cold rain. More Seaworld stabbers were rushing down the gangplanks behind him, and the Anchormen were tripping over one another to cede more deck space to them. This fight was breaking into a rout.
For a few moments, he held the hope that he could keep the eagle away from the battle, that he wouldn’t need to bring it in for a third pass. But then his stabbers came up flush against the quarterdeck stairs. His two lead swordsmen stormed up the steps in unison. Immediately they both fell in unison, croaked before their bodies hit the deck.
The two burly-looking pikers from the leadership stack who’d run them through stood upon the quarterdeck above, laughing and waving their polearms suggestively.
Forecastle winced. The high ground was the high ground. The enemy held the advantage here, and they knew it. The warlord with the crossbow was not in Forecastle’s line of sight, but he was almost certainly leading that stack of bruisers. He wasn’t going to make this easy.
Six more stabbers arrived from Unsinkable II and stacked up with Forecastle, which was fortunate timing. The sailors on the main deck were showing some life again, pressing his stack against the rails. His fighters turned their attention away from the stairs and back to the on-deck melee, but they were also now vulnerable to a quick lancing from above.
The Captain squinted in the rain, trying to think of how to take those disbanded stairs. He was facing an opposing stack with better leadership than his. They also had a piker bonus against his stabbers, and what amounted to a terrain bonus from those stairs.
He shook his head. This was not a winnable engagement. Not without some help, some special advantage, and he only had one of those.
Forecastle closed his eyes, thinking of the double eagle. “Lend me three,” he muttered to it, ordering it to apply three points of its Luckamancy reserve to him (he assumed that was how it worked). “And take one for yourself. Get in position to dive.”
He heard the eagle screech from far abaft the frigate’s stern. He turned to the two stabbers closest to the quarterdeck stairs and ordered, “Up! And over!”
Dutifully, they did “up.” But they did not live long enough to make it “over.” The Anchorbar pikers were ready and waiting for precisely this. For a moment, both of his fighters hung in the air over the steps, impaled and wriggling on their respective opponent’s pikes, and Forecastle seized his chance.
His own clumsiness was what saved him. His boot slipped on the second-highest step, and he fell forward between the enemy pikers, landing on his face in the rain-soaked deck at their feet. Something struck the top of his scalp as he fell. It felt like he’d stood up and hit his head on something.
But he wasn’t badly hurt, and he still held his sword in hand. With his right arm, he made a sweeping pommel-strike at the legs of one of the pikers. The man tumbled to the deck.
Before the other one could ready his weapon, Forecastle sprung to his feet and placed a perfect point-first thrust under his chin, jamming his sword up into the soldier’s head. He felt the tip of his sword contact the skull from the inside.
Amazingly enough, this was the first critical hit he’d ever scored on an enemy unit. As the piker dropped to the deck, he took a wild swing down at the one he had toppled, and sliced open the man’s belly all the way across his abdomen, just above his hips.
This was his second crit. The piker croaked with rage still burning in his eyes, even as they squeezed to an X-sign and his life was gone. There was a clatter as his polearm fell over the edge of the quarterdeck, and tumbled down the steps.
Forecastle looked up just as a flash of lightning lit up the quarterdeck in dazzling white. It burned the scene into his eyes: frozen raindrops, taut ropes, billowed sails, five powerful enemy fighters advancing on him, and the warlord in the burgundy coat, holding an empty crossbow.
Now he understood that he’d been shot in the head as he slipped, but the bolt had only nicked his scalp. That was, perhaps, all three points of his Luckamancy spent at once. But he was here. He was up on the quarterdeck, and all enemy eyes were on him.
Just where they were meant to be.
“Capture!” he whispered fiercely, using his sword to point at the enemy officer. He didn’t even glance astern, for fear of drawing the party’s attention to the eagle. He just waved and pointed his sword like a fool, drawing all of their attention as they moved cautiously toward him, pikes and swords at the ready.
The bird came in low and silent this time, as if it understood the need for stealth. Only after the warlord was clutched in its talons and it was climbing into the sky did the double eagle release a triumphant double shriek.
Forecastle barely glanced up once he saw the leadership bonus disappear from the enemy stack, and the soldiers ducking and cringing.
“To me! With haste!” he called out over the edge rail.
In seconds, two of his stabbers had mounted the stairs and fallen in beside him, and the rest were disengaging from melee and climbing to the higher deck. The Anchorbar soldiers managed to regroup, and made a disorganized and half-hearted charge. Forecastle stepped in and began to parry their weak, unled attacks, buying time for the rest of his units to rejoin and re-stack.
On the frigate’s quarterdeck, there was no leadership left but his own. And he had just become a level 4.
He could not see where the bird had taken the Anchorman warlord. He hadn’t actually thought that far ahead. But he did note the huge crossbow lying at the command post, in the rain.