As was so often the case, the splitting of heads and poking with swords was the easy part.
Captain Forecastle stood in the spray on the frigate’s command deck. He was partly sheltered by her mizzen sails here, but still felt salty and drenched to the skin.
The fight on the main deck was decisively concluded now, and his stabbers were sweeping deck-by-deck for Anchormen holdouts below. By reports, they’d already found the ship’s captain down there, so there was likely no Anchorbar leadership left aboard.
Forecastle couldn’t say why the enemy captain had not been up on deck, and he wouldn’t have the chance to ask him now. The man had apparently fought until the stabbers chopped him to bits.
Anchormen did that, he was told. They gave no quarter and asked for none. Seaworld wasn’t taking very many prisoners here.
They did have the warlord with the mustache—the double eagle was keeping him pinned to the main topgallant yard high above—and they had been able to snare some of the enemy fighters on the main deck by using fishing nets. Since the Anchormen never took prisoners, Forecastle was not inclined to show them Queen Eliteabit’s mercy in return. But he might just need some bargaining chips to get out of this battle alive.
And how, exactly, was he going to manage that?
That riddle was the reason he was standing at the command post in the rain, instead of banging steel with more enemies below. This single-ship victory was all for naught if they lost the fleet. He had to be a captain now, maybe even an admiral, rather than a warrior.
Mostly, he had to understand what was happening, and decide what to do about it. His troops would soon secure this vessel. Because Unsinkable II was so huge, they had enough extra seafaring units aboard to crew her in full, and still fight with what was left of Her Majesty’s flagship.
His current, vague plan was to crew Cat Harping to the frigate. As ranking officer, she’d become Captain of HMS Whatever-they-decided-to-call-it. Then he would command Unsinkable II, and try to turn this fight around.
If that looked to be possible, then he’d let the frigate join the battle. But it probably wouldn’t be; probably all of the Seaworld ships were doomed. His main hope in this action was that an Anchorbar ship would be immune to whatever invisible force or trap in this hex was sinking the fleet.
If Unsinkable II was lost, then Cat would have orders to flee. In a fast, mostly undamaged ship like this one, the crew’s combined move would create enough ship’s move to get one hex away. This might not accomplish anything at all, but perhaps she could go undetected for a turn and get free. Maybe she’d somehow be able to report the details of this action to the Admiralty. Maybe she would be able to negotiate a reasonable surrender, in exchange for the prisoners.
He didn’t know. It wasn’t a particularly sound plan. But staying in the ambush hex seemed the worst possible thing to do.
Sadly, this plan was getting worse by the minute. With Unsinkable II and the frigate locked together by grappling lines in the stormy seas, an alarming amount of damage was being done to both vessels.
Well, possibly so; the frigate was still contested, so Forecastle had no sense of how seaworthy she really was. But being crewed to the ship-of-the-line, he had been feeling Unsinkable II’s overall condition deteriorating rapidly as this fight went on. Glancing up at the frigate’s sails, he didn’t think it looked too torn up. But he was not a rigger (or a seafarer at all). Unsinkable II’s sails didn’t look all that awful to him, either, but it felt like she was barely a functioning ship any more. He would have to get these ships unmoored from one another as soon as possible.
And then there was the state of the larger battle itself. When he’d last been able to get a good report, Seaworld’s fleet had been reduced to fewer than half a dozen ships. Peering into the gray blur of the rainstorm, he could spot only Anchorbar ships now, all at a distance. He saw no ship but his own flying the Queen’s colors.
Had there ever been such a lonely sight as that?
The shout came from on high. Ensign Carrack was yelling down to him from Unsinkable II’s upper deck, the de facto command deck.
Forecastle strode over to the port rail, out into a heavier downpour, and called up, as the heaving of the sea brought Carrack a bit lower and closer. “Command! Report!”
“Taking water, sir! Swift!”
For a moment, Forecastle stood with his mouth agape, tasting raindrops.
It was perhaps a dumb question, but it was all he could think of to ask. He didn’t understand. Unsinkable II had taken no damage below the waterline, as far as he was aware.
“Hold! Amidships!” Shouted Carrack, as the bigger ship rose upward again with the swell.
Forecastle put his hand to his mouth to shout louder. “Man the pumps!”
“Aye, Cap’n!” came Carrack’s voice on the wind. “They’re trying! But it’s bad! Master Harping’s overseeing!”
He did not return to the relative shelter of the command post, but stayed in the rain, watching the two warships sway and bob in the storm. Unsinkable II definitely sat lower in the water than she had before. That breach was all the way down in the hold?
Carefully, he eyed the rails, observing the angle of the gangplanks between. On both the up roll and the down roll, the bigger ship got noticeably lower from wave to wave. On the down roll, the frigate’s main deck was actually the higher now, by a little bit. For a moment, he could look straight across at his crew. And the biggest waves were now washing over Unsinkable II’s main deck, something he’d never seen happen before.
His ship was sinking. The only ship he had ever commanded was about to go to the bottom, and he wasn’t even aboard.
“Carrack!” he shouted.
“Captain?” The navigator peered over the ragged, shock-ravaged hulling at him, looking much too near now.
“Can you save her?!” he demanded.
Carrack looked away and shook his head. “Who’m I to say, sir? Titans’ will be done, an’ the sea as well.”
The Captain’s eyes went wide. “You’re a disbanded officer of my disbanded ship, in Her Majesty’s disbanded Royal Navy! I asked you if you can save her! Can you?”
The helmsman looked away into the distance, silently. His lips were thin and white.
Somewhere in the back of his head, Forecastle remembered an especially drunken dinner in Admiral Chequer stateroom. Superstitions aboard ship were hard for him to ask about, but to avoid offending anyone else, he’d needed to know. Sometimes he could only find the courage to ask when they’d reached the bottom of the bottle.
“Admiral...” he’d said cautiously, “are there any of these shipboard customs,” (he never said “superstitions”), “that you just...can’t abide?”
“Mm,” Chequer had said, his eyes narrowing to slits. “One, yes. But it’s...only really a bane to captains.”
A long silence followed. There were three drops of wine in the very bottom of Forecastle’s glass, and he drank them, pretending they were a hefty gulp. He put down the glass and bravely leaned forward. “What’s that one, sir?”
Chequer’s eyes stayed narrow, but his mouth twisted into a wry grin. “Only that they’ll never tell you when all is lost. The sailors think that if they say so, then they’ve bound Fate to make it true. The captain is the only one who decides that. And it’s one privilege of rank I could do without.”
Carrack had been at that table, and looked sheepish. Forecastle looked at him now, and understood.
“Abandon ship,” he ordered.