Duke Forecastle - Part 20
He felt the wounds to his ship before he was aware of his own physical circumstances. Forecastle could sense that the remainder of the foremast was gone now, as were significant portions of the main. The rudder and tiller were smashed and useless. There was a small fire in the aft furnace. The hull was breached in three places along the port side.
And two thirds of Double Eagle’s crew now lay croaked or incapacitated.
Carrack, he knew for certain, was lost. He’d seen it happen. A section of the quarterdeck rail had flown off and struck him in the back, snapping the first mate’s spine like a branch, and throwing his broken body over the command post to slam the captain backwards onto the deck.
The sounds Forecastle could hear made no sense to him yet, so he opened his eyes. He found himself lying flat on his back, looking up at the eagle on the cross-jack yard.
Looking at its points was a new habit he couldn’t break: Special: Luckamancy Reserve - capacity: 10/30
“Titans, bird,” he gasped out, “what did you do?”
He got himself up on his elbows and blinked in the midday sunlight, looking around. Carrack’s body lay beside him, facing away. Pieces of everything were everywhere.
He rose and stood on his feet, feeling distant and isolated. His brain felt clouded, numb, but his limbs and his eyes worked well enough. Apparently, the explosion had left him physically unharmed.
The sounds he’d been hearing before now resolved themselves into despondent shouts and pleas. The practiced, competent rhythm of the deck hands and riggers had unraveled into chaos in the catastrophe. Was he the only officer left standing? So it seemed.
Forecastle could see that the quarter and main decks were strewn with splintered wood and sailcloth, and the bodies of his sailors. Tangled lines and torn sails hung from the mainmast. The mizzen looked intact, but the foremast, broken at the root, hung over the port side, dangling its sails and ropes into the water. A few heads bobbed in the waves there.
The missing sails and rigging afforded him a clear view of the agent of his ship’s destruction. The Anchorbar man-o’-war must have fired a full broadside, raking Double Eagle from stem to stern, every shot a direct hit. She was tacking for a second volley, and looked about ready to fire again.
“Bunco,” he said. It came out in a soft sigh.
The bird above him cawed, and he looked up at it angrily. “Yes! Bunco! Curse us, don’t bless them! What were you thinking? We needed this ship!”
His plan had been to fight the Anchorbar ships and surprise them, taking them out one by one. But now Double Eagle was croaked in the water. They could not maneuver, and there was little reason for the enemy to close with them. The Anchormen only had to fire their beams a time or two to finish the job, and that’s just what they were preparing to do.
He put his hands on his hips and blew out a long breath, looking down the length of his crippled ship. He could feel its distress: the punctures and fractures, the smoldering fire, the seawater leaking in.
“I am,” he said, perhaps to the bird, perhaps to the Titans, “the worst captain imaginable. I should not be here. But the Duty is mine. I won’t give up my ship. We’ll fight them with what we have left.”
He turned and looked up at the eagle, perched on the yard above him. For once, both its heads were looking at him.
“And what we have is you,” said Forecastle, his anger hardening into resolve. “Listen to me now. I order you not to fill your Luckamancy reserve by blessing the enemy any more. No more buncos, you understand?”
One of the eagle’s heads dipped, almost apologetically.
“In fact, protect us. Spend your luck to make sure we are not hit again, and keep us afloat,” said the captain. The bird stretched out one wing, and preened its feathers a bit. He wasn’t certain it had understood the order, but then he felt a strange coolness, in a spot he couldn’t identify. He realized that the fire in the furnace room had been extinguished.
The eagle’s Luckamancy Reserve now said: 9/30.
“Good bird. Smart bird,” he told it, speaking clearly and slowly. “All the same, though, I still need you to curse us. Like you did my dice rolls. I am going to fire the beams now. You make sure we can’t hit a thing. Fill up your reserves on that. All right?”
The eagle opened a beak and showed him a pink tongue. He took it as an “aye-aye,” and turned around to look for any of the crew who’d be willing and able enough to follow an order.
Not one of the sailors had approached him for aid or instruction, or to report. They ignored the quarterdeck and worked on their own, putting what minor things they could back together again.
There were some units up in the main and mizzen rigging. He’d never been on deck when the beams were fired, and he didn’t know which crewmen were responsible for it, so he just stood there like a braying mule and shouted his order to the sky.
“Fire our beams at the near ship! Now!” He pointed at the man-o’-war with an outstretched arm, just to make it clear to anyone who might heed him. “Now!”
A long moment passed. Then someone high above him shouted, “Sight nigh enemy vessel, aye, Captain! Light port beams, aye! Fire at will, aye-aye!”
He waited a few moments more, watching the man-o’-war. She didn’t move or turn, and her yards were perfectly aligned on the Eagle. He wondered what they might be waiting for. He wondered how long it would take for the remaining crew to—
The bolts of Shockmancy arced out in all directions from Double Eagle: skyward, into the water, perpendicular to the ship in a way he didn’t even know they could be shot. Four beams from the mizzen and two from the mangled main were fired, and not one was even close to the target.
He heard groans from some of the sailors on deck which had nothing to do with their wounds, but this was just the result he’d wanted. He glanced at the bird’s points:
Special: Luckamancy Reserve - capacity: 11/30
Two points gained! Perhaps, then, the eagle had stolen the luck from two of their shots, which would otherwise have hit the man-o’-war.
“Brilliant,” he said. “Brilliant! That’s it, bird! That’s it! Spend it to make them miss, if you have to, but let’s keep filling you up.” He cupped his hand to his mouth and shouted up into the mizzen rigging, to whichever rigger had followed his order. “Prepare to fire again! Fire at will, same target!”
“Light for beam volley, aye, Cap’n! Fire at will, aye!”
The frigate and the man-o’-war sat there in the water, slugging it out with three more broadsides. Beams from the Anchorbar battleship sliced through the air between the sails, or struck the water harmlessly, but Double Eagle took no more hits.
Forecastle kept his eye on the bird’s Luckamancy Reserve. This immunity from fire had cost it eight points of luck, but it gained back five on the Seaworld ship’s laughable attempts to return fire. Shockmancy bolts flew off everywhere but toward the enemy.
The two vessels were, in effect, throwing dice. But the frigate was losing, because the man-o’-war had more masts, and therefore more rolls.
The other ships of the Anchormen fleet had now turned as a pack, to jump into the fight. This action was buying a little time, but it would not save Forecastle’s ship. All the man-o’-war had to do was to keep shooting, and eventually the bird’s luck would run out.
The Anchormen, however, didn’t know that.
Perhaps it was the frustration of so many misses, or the pride of the man-o’-war’s captain in wanting to claim the final victory, or the fact that with her critical damage and wildly malfunctioning weapons, HMS Double Eagle seemed to be no threat...but the enemy warship trimmed her sails and turned with the wind, aiming to engage.
“Bird...” said Forecastle at the broken command post, “hop up through the sails now. Don’t let them spot you.”
The eagle made no sound, but sidestepped along the cross-jack yard and eased around the mizzen mast, with spread wings. Then, with a few careful flaps, it heaved itself up to the mizzen topsail.
“Let it pass you!” he called to the mostly unseen riggers. “Ignore it. Fire the beams on the approaching vessel!”
The next volley went as wild as the others, and was even more improbable for how close their target now was. The approaching man-o’-war was rigged to grapple, with hook-swinging sailors lined up at the bow and along the rails. She looked much the way Unsinkable II must have appeared to the Anchorbar crew of this ship, just an hour or so ago.
“Listen!” he shouted to his deck crew. Most of them were busy at repair, though some were forming up for combat. “You’re not likely to believe a disbanded word I say, I know it!” That made a few of them throw him a wary or disgusted look. “But we can win this fight! Don’t bother with arms at all, just throw off the hooks! Resist the grapple!”
He received a few disconsolate “aye”s in reply to his order. Most of the stabbers sheathed their swords.
The man-o’-war was in fine fettle, and excellently crewed. She approached from astern, deftly pulling alongside the stricken frigate on her damaged port side, looming over by a deck and a half. The unseen enemy sailors shouted out, and hooks cascaded onto Eagle’s decks from above.
From the quarterdeck, the captain could see only a wall of painted hardwood boards, with angry faces in the shadows of her open ports. He did not know if the enemy’s quakken might attack, or if it would fight with their own below the water. But as yet, he’d heard no thumps.
Forecastle looked up. “Go,” he ordered.
The eagle’s position in the mizzen topsail yard must have been just a few feet above eye level for the man-o’-war’s command deck. With a chilling double screech, it dove out of the sails. He heard shouts, and more screeching, from the enemy ship’s decks above.
Risking a look, Forecastle ran to the port side rail and tried to see the fight, but the battleship was too tall, and Double Eagle was sitting low in the water now, anyway. Something was happening up there, but all he could see was the quarterdeck gunwale of the enemy ship.
His orders to the bird would have been simple for any soldier or sailor: Find the one that’s not afraid of you. Whichever one doesn’t flinch and tries to engage you, capture and retrieve him. Use all the Luckamancy you need, to ensure success. For a beast unit, that was a terrible lot to comprehend. He just didn’t know if the eagle was capable of understanding it.
The engagement dragged on, with no sign of anything at all. At one point, a pronged hook dropped down beside Forecastle and snagged on the railing he was leaning on. He drew his sword and hacked at the line until it snapped.
Along the length of the port side, his sailors were doing the same thing to an overwhelming number of other lines that were snagged on spars and in the rigging. But gangplanks were already being lowered. There would soon be enemy units aboard. He looked up again to watch for any more falling hooks.
...and saw the eagle dragging a struggling body over the battleship’s railing!
“Smart bird! Pretty bird!” shouted Captain Forecastle. “Bring him aboard!”
He turned on his heels and took off for the companionway steps. To nobody in particular, he said, “I’ll be below!”
The captain stood in the dim green light, watching with wonder as the great wooden warship rolled away into the murky depths. A few of the Anchormen escaped like bubbles from the cracks in her, as she sank. They kicked and swam desperately for the surface, almost certainly doomed.
Forecastle turned away from the porthole. He couldn’t watch. He had been there.
This battle was still going on. Despite the loss of their own ship, some enemy boarders had made it onto Double Eagle’s decks. He was going to have to find a stack of stabbers to lead. And of course, the rest of the Anchorbar fleet was approaching fast behind. The chance that he and the last of his crew would survive the day remained small.
But when you can swap the dice, a small chance was all you needed, wasn’t it?
He leaned, exhausted, against the wall of the little porthole closet. For a moment, he closed his eyes and played back through the battle in his mind.
Like the fight for Unsinkable II, this one had been won below the waves. But this time, the bigger ship had two quakkens attacking it. It went from pristine condition to sunken wreck in moments.
The quakkens were not tame. That was true. You couldn’t give them orders. But they were protective, and more importantly, responsive. They were drawn to the focus of your attention. If you looked at an enemy ship and saw it as a threat to your own, then they would attack it. And they would hit it where you most wanted them to.
All for the promise of more loaves of bread.
As he had guessed, the second quakken wanted to protect the ship its “friend” was aboard. But you didn’t need to be the quakken’s friend to direct it. You just needed to be the captain of that ship.
He would try to repeat this trick, of course. The bird still had more luck, and they could refill it by firing. He hoped to grab several more prisoners, and their little yellow friends.
But even if they couldn’t, even if the bird was lost, the two quakkens now defending Double Eagle ought to be able to stand up to any ship with one. It would be an interesting fight.
He closed the porthole cover, stepped out of the little booth, and drew his sword.