Duke Forecastle - Part 11

Duke Forecastle - Part 11
As Forecastle followed Cat Harping up the companionway steps to the helm, he felt a spray of rain on his face in a part of the ship that should have been dry. He climbed up and stood in the salt and smoke and the downpour. He somehow hadn’t even thought to put on his hat.
Collier and Carrack both manned what remained of the whipstaff and tiller, but the head cover above them was largely missing. In fact, the greater part of the quarterdeck had been blasted away, leaving smoldering splinters and even some bits of the crew—shredded uniforms and body parts—strewn over the rain-slick timbers.
“What’s going on?” he yelled to Cat over the wind, blinking as the rain got in his eyes.
“We’re losing,”said the Navigator bluntly. She wore sturdy canvas rain gear and an enviable broad-brimmed hat. “You got any orders, Cap’n?”
He looked up through the gaping hole. Only the mizzen topgallant and topmast sails looked to be intact. The rest of the rigging on the mizzen mast flapped around in useless tatters. There were riggers up there tying things down in the gale, shouting and throwing coils of rope.
The main and foremast rigging also seemed about half-intact. The double eagle was perched on the main topgallant yard, looking unperturbed by either the action or the storm.
He looked around on deck, but he couldn’t even see most of the rest of the ship from down here. The Anchorbar frigate had been aiming to hit the leadership, and they’d succeeded. There wasn’t even a trace of the Admiral’s uniform to be seen here. And the enemy would be maneuvering for another rake or a broadside in half a minute or so...
He turned to the helmsmen, who held the whipstaff steady, despite the fact that the top third of it had been blasted away. Nevertheless, the steering mechanism looked to be intact. And they hadn’t taken any shots that would damage the rudder, so they should still be able to maneuver within the hex.
“Can we steer?” he shouted to them. Collier nodded.
“Aye, sir.”
Forecastle made a fist. “Bring us in position to shoot at the frigate! Let’s make ‘em pay for croaking the Admiral!”
The helmsmen straightened up and nodded once, violently. “Aye, sir!”
Despite Collier’s enthusiasm, the lack of specifics in Forecastle’s order left him standing there for a moment. Cat Harping rushed to the companion porthole and looked out. Sighting the enemy ship, she shouted back to the helm, “Hard a port! Left full rudder!”
“Hard a port, sir!” returned Collier, then he and Carrack heaved at the whipstaff. The deck beneath Forecastle’s boots began to tilt to port.
Cat climbed up three of the remaining companionway steps and poked her head up to shout accompanying orders to the rigging crew (“Trice up! Sway aloft!” and several other things Forecastle still didn’t know the meaning of), then she returned and stood by Forecastle’s side. She kept her eyes on the narrow, murky view through the porthole. Forecastle adjusted his stance and gripped an intact support beam overhead, as the listing to port steepened.
“It didn’t look like we have many ships left!” the Duke shouted to the navigator.
Cat shook her head. “No, Cap’n! Maybe six? Maybe less! I haven’t got a recent report from the lookout.” She pointed vaguely up, toward the top of the mainmast.
“How are we losing this so badly?”
“No idea, sir! We shouldn’t be! They’re just sinkin’ us, and we’re not sinkin’ them! Our ships are goin’ down without much of a fight at all!”
Duke Forecastle nodded. That fit with what he’d seen from his wardroom, only worse.
“You think it’s the double eagle doing it?” he asked, pointing skyward. For the entire battle, that one horrible thought had grown to haunt him: that everything that was happening to the fleet was the bird’s fault, and therefore his. “Is this all just bad luck?”
A booming of beam weapons and/or thunder rattled from the near distance. Most likely, it was the weapons.
Cat scowled. “I...really doubt that, sir.” Then she flashed him a wry grin. “I mean if the blighted thing’d had that much sway, I think we’d’ve broke in half the second it landed on us!” She made a breaking motion with her hands. “Crack! Glubglubglub! Don’tcha think so?”
He couldn’t help but return the grin. Even under circumstances like these, it was good to see her smile. It was good to see anyone else’s face at all, really. He wanted to talk to Cat, to ask her how they had managed to save him from drowning during his keelhauling, if nothing else.
But he was the Captain now. He had to focus on the battle. Six or fewer ships left fighting...
As ranking officer aboard the flagship, he might be expected to signal them with orders (he wasn’t sure, since there were three other admirals in the fleet besides Chequer, and he himself was not even a seafarer). But what could he say in this raging chaos except “fight on” or something? Retreat might still be an option for some of them, but not for Unsinkable II. And he couldn’t think of a tactical reason to split the fleet now.
“Has anyone sent word to the Admiralty?” he asked the Navigator.
“Aye. He sent enemy sighting right off, with his intentions to fight.”
“Any reports after that?”
She shrugged. “No, Cap’n.”
“Well, we were supposed to be finding out what the Anchormen are doing. Even if we’re doomed, we’re supposed to report that to Her Majesty!”
She shrugged again, her eyes glued to the porthole. “Hat went overboard with Chequer’s head, sir. The Queen’s got all the word she’s getting from us, unless we win. And it’s not as if we even know what they’re doing. Is it? Shift the helm!”
“Shift the helm, sir!” echoed Collier. With a great creaking that was audible over the wind and rain and Shockmancy reports, the ship began to level itself out.
A moment later Cat Harping barked: “Heading hold!”
“Heading hold, aye!”
She pulled her head away from the porthole and jerked a thumb at it. “They’re cooperating, Cap’n. They have the gage, but they want to trade broadsides with us.”
“Why?” asked Forecastle, surprised. “Don’t we have them outclassed?” Even with her rigging so damaged, Unsinkable II should have been the superior warship. The frigate ought to have been maneuvering for another rake shot, where she’d have less exposure, rather than an even exchange of Shockmancy.
“They don’t look to be afraid of us, sir,” said Cat darkly. “Half a minute til we close.”
“Maybe they know we don’t have a real captain,” he muttered to himself.
That was all too true. He didn’t understand the first nuance of ship-to-ship fighting. Cat had to translate his orders for him. By all rights and logic, she should have become the captain of this ship, but the chain of command didn’t work that way. The enemy must know they’d croaked the Admiral; maybe they knew this crew had no-one left who could competently command a naval battle.
Well. Then maybe he shouldn’t try and fight one. His hand fell to the hilt of his sword. He might have forgotten his hat, but he hadn’t forgotten his weapon.
“I want to grapple them,” he said. “Grapple and board.”
Cat turned her head and peered at him cautiously. “S’a smaller ship, Cap’n. We can take ‘em. No need to stoop.”
Forecastle mashed his lips together tightly, nodding as pieces of a plan assembled in his head. “It’s also an undamaged ship,” he said. “And a fast one. And it doesn’t have a bird on it.”
Then he fell into a very old and familiar feeling, that of speaking in direct orders. He hadn’t done that in how long now?
“Rig to grapple! Get my boarding squad on deck. And don’t fire on that frigate, Cat! Don’t scratch it. That’s our new flagship sailing in.”