WB2014 Duke Forecastle - Part 18
Double Eagle ran with the wind, the Anchorbar line in hot pursuit behind her. The frigate was faster than the fleet, but she had only minutes before the hex border would halt her progress. At that point, the ship would be pinned in and swarmed.
Captain Forecastle climbed up to the poop deck with Carrack in tow, to get a better view of their pursuers. The great brown form of the ship’s namesake perched there, too, with one head watching the captain, and the other gazing alertly out to sea.
Forecastle had called the bird down from the topmast, but this was the first time he’d seen it alight on a railing instead of a yard. Up close, he could see that it had wounds on its legs and body from the fight. It seemed untroubled by them, though.
“Look, bear with me,” he said to the helmsman, holding up his hands helplessly. “I don’t remember the terms, so I don’t know how to say the commands right. But this is what I want: either get them all spread out,” he said, making vague gestures toward the enemy line, “or get them in each other’s way. I want it so they can’t clearly see what we’re doing.”
“Aye, Cap’n,” said Carrack solemnly. He stood on tiptoes for a moment, taking sight of the Anchorbar vessels. “They’re stayin’ tight now, sir, though. I don’t see as how we could loosen the line. We could break across it, maybe. But that’d be tricky. They’ve got the weather gage.”
Forecastle looked, too. Across a sea of moderate swell, the thirteen enemy ships were holding a regimented battle line. It was capped at either end by their heaviest battleships, both 4-deckers which completely outclassed Eagle. But it was the number of ships that worried him, not their size.
“We shouldn’t, though. Right? Not with one ship? They’d...” he struggled to remember the book on battle tactics. “What’s the navy term for crossfire? They’d shoot us from both sides.”
Carrack glanced at the bird. “Double up, sir?”
That was it. “Double up on us. Yes. That’s not what I want. I want to fight them one at a time, in single ship-to-ship beam fights, where the others don’t have a clear view of us. And I don’t want to grapple.” He looked again. The line was somewhat slanted, with a leading and trailing edge to it. “Can we flank them? Get around that nearer side of the line?”
Carrack put both his hands on the painted rail, squinting through his still-puffy eyes at the horizon. He hunched his shoulders, seemingly uncomfortable to be standing so close to the eagle.
“Hafta be the man-o’-war we fight first,” he said dubiously, after a moment.
“Fine, do that,” the captain ordered. “I don’t care what ship we’re fighting. In fact, the bigger the better. It’ll block their view more.”
“Aye-aye.” Carrack gave him the rare shipboard formality of a salute, then jumped away, taking the steps down to the quarterdeck in a single bound. “Helm! Right full rudder!”
The de facto first officer shouted a steady stream of other orders from the command deck, and the riggers began calling out to one another in seafarer-speak, but Forecastle did not listen. He remained at the poop deck railing, standing right next to the eagle.
Sails snapped in the breeze overhead. The ship began tilting to starboard. The shadows of the lines and shrouds shifted over the planks. They swung away from the edge of the hex.
He looked up at the bird. Two of its four yellow eyes stared back down at him, while its other head peered down into the sea, searching for fish. Or maybe it was tracking their quakken, below the water.
Almost unconsciously, he reached out and smoothed the feathers on its nearer neck. They stood right back up again.
He laughed. “Well, I can’t say ‘pretty bird.’ You’re a homely beast,” he said, smiling up at it, “but you are probably the best fighting unit I’ve ever commanded.”
At that, the eagle opened its black-tipped ivory beak and lifted its head up. A beam of sun glistened on its pink tongue, but it made no sound. It then closed its beak with a tiny click, bent down, and pecked once at the railing by Forecastle’s hand, making a significant gouge in the wood and paint. Forecastle didn’t flinch. He reached up and stroked its neck again. The feathers were short and stiff, like the bristles of a groomsman’s brush.
“I also think you’re a pretty smart creature, too. ‘Pretty smart bird,’ maybe? Would you settle for that? Pretty smart bird.” He kept petting it. The bird did not blink, but a white nictitating membrane slid over its pupilless eye.
He checked its stats:
Special: Luckamancy Reserve - capacity: 3/30
“I hope you are smart,” he said, as he scratched it gently down its back. It shrugged contently. “I need you to do something quite complicated now.”
Being one ship against a formation afforded Double Eagle an advantage in agility. She could turn as she wished, but if the long battle line wanted to change course in response, then orders would have to be given, and signal flags waved down the line.
In its pursuit, the enemy formation was like a fishing net, intended as much to cut off the quarry’s route of escape as to align their own firepower. Its leading edge was knifing in on the northeast side, where Anchorbar had the greater benefit of the gage.
At first, the Anchormen allowed the frigate to slow and sail closer against the wind, giving up her speed and distance (the only tactical blessings she still had left). But as it became clear that the Seaworld ship might just be able to round the line and squeeze by, their tight formation finally broke. A barque and two fast brigantines hove to and lagged behind the fleet, holding back in case of a chase. Then the remainder of the Anchorbar line bent and swung around to the southwest, to cut off their retreat.
At the fore, the man-o’-war did not try to race to cut them off. Instead, she trimmed her sails and lingered, as if welcoming the chance to lay down a raking broadside or two as Double Eagle passed within her range.
“Three held back, and the line’s down to ten,” he said to Carrack, pointing. “They’ve had to spread farther apart.”
“Is that far enough, sir?”
He shook his head. “I don’t know. But it’ll help.”
Visibility was all too clear in this hex. It had been limited in the bigger battle, so Forecastle didn’t know if the enemy was yet aware of the double eagle. But he believed in holding his cards close. The bird was now perched on the lowest yard on the mizzen (which, for some perverse reason was not called the mizzenyard, the way the other masts had a foreyard and a mainyard there, but was called a “cross-jack yard”), hidden from the enemy’s view by the (again, Titans, why?) cross-jack sail.
“They’re presenting for a broadside,” said Carrack, indicating the big battleship.
“I think they’re expecting one from us, as we pass,” nodded Forecastle. “But we’re not going to pass. Get ready to turn and sail right for ‘em.”
Most of the rest of the enemy ships still had line-of-sight on the frigate, but the main fleet of ten was now nearly in full conjunction behind the man-o’-war. The farther ones shrank to little dots. Most of them were too far away to spot the eagle in the air, he thought. But before he could risk letting it fly, he needed the cover of fire.
Sooner than he’d expected, a bolt of Shockmancy lanced out from the man-o’-war’s main beams, struck the fore topgallant sail, and cut the top of the foremast off completely. A chunk of timber, still with Her Majesty’s pennant attached to it, tumbled overboard. And with it fell the bodies of two riggers, into the brine. Pieces of sailcloth and frayed rope fluttered on the breeze.
He couldn’t see the damage too well from the command position, but he understood what had happened. His sense of this ship and its condition was sharper than it had been for Unsinkable II. Maybe that was something that came with being captain.
“Not even a warning shot?” he muttered to Carrack.
“Think it was meant to be, Cap’n,” said the first officer. “We should still be out of range for a minute or so. A hit from that distance was just cursed good luck!”
Forecastle raised his eyebrows.
He turned and glanced up at the eagle, which was perched above and behind him. Its points said:
Special: Luckamancy Reserve - capacity: 4/30
“Cursed,” said the captain, shaking his head, “is exactly correct, Mister Carrack.” The creature had gained a point in its Luckamancy Reserve, almost certainly at the cost of two crew and a piece of the mast. Pretty smart bird? Well. Indeed. “Instead of running, I think we should’ve been playing cards this whole time.”
Carrack snorted. “Like as not, Cap’n. For all the chance we’ve got left to us.”
The first mate took a step away, as if intending to get a closer look at the damage, but Forecastle clapped him on the shoulder, turned him around, and looked him in the eye.
“Do you happen to have a deck?”