1637 No Peace Beyond The Line – Snippet 05

Bjelke nodded back. “I suppose it must be akin to breaking an ingrained habit.”

Simonszoon scoffed lightly, stared at the Spanish ships coming toward them. “Harder. Because these habits kept us alive. Since we were boys. It’s more like trying to resist an instinct. Or better still, like trying prevent your eye from shutting — quicker than thought — when something comes flashing towards it.”

Cornelis Evertson nodded at Bjelke, then toward the oncoming Spanish van. “And station keeping like this, as the war galleons bear down?” He shook his head. “It goes against what every lesson and every battle teaches: having weather gauge at sea is even more crucial than having the high ground on land.”

Tromp realized he was no longer smiling, but staring, like the others, at the oncoming fleet. He pointed. “Look out there, Lieutenant Bjelke. That is what an admiral sees in his nightmares. One’s sworn enemies closing from windward while you are caught motionless before them. No way to win the battle. No way to save your ships and your men.” He sighed, rubbed his face; the fine, infrequent spray kept it moist, despite the sun. “Yet here we wait, like lightly armored skirmishers standing before a charge of black-hulled knights which outnumber us almost two to one. And outweigh us, both in tonnage and broadside shot, by three to one. Easily.”

 “Which proves,” Simonszoon grunted, “that I’m the greater fool than Bjelke.” He turned on his heel.

Rik sputtered, “H-how’s that then, sir?”

Dirck turned back. “Because, as the realist, I should be steaming — or if need be, swimming — away from those Iberian leviathans. Yet here I remain.” He paused at the stairs that mounted the side of the pilot house to the flying bridge, squinted to starboard. “Bjelke, that Bermudan sloop has finally caught up to us. Have a detail see that her master’s brought aboard. And smartly; we don’t have much time left for chatting.”

Tromp turned to Evertsen. “I’ll want that master’s report directly.”

“Yes, sir.”

“And Kees, get Sehested.”

Evertsen paused, glanced to the east. “Sir, granted that we have at least three-quarters of an hour yet, but is it prudent that we –?”

“Kees. This is why Sehested came along. If we can risk our lives for our sovereigns, he can do the same.”

“I’ll have him called above, Admiral.”

Tromp simply nodded and gestured Evertsen on his way. He considered the slowly growing vanguard of the Spanish fleet: eleven galleons. The three out in front were specially built for combat, decks reinforced to enable them to carry upwards of forty guns, each. Most of those pieces were likely to be 32-pounders — demi-cannons, as many still called them. But almost as many were likely to be the monstrous 42-pound full cannons which were restricted to the lower decks, lest the ship become so top-heavy that it sailed crank or even rolled. They were all comparatively inaccurate guns, short-ranged, and often took several minutes to reload.

Having faced them before, Maarten Tromp knew their limitations. He also knew the strength of Resolve‘s hull, its speed, and had seen her shrug off hits from just such guns. But she had never sailed against so many, and never from what amounted to a standing start. If anything went wrong with Resolve‘s engines now . . . He put that thought out of his head, and formulated yet another set of contingencies should his men’s new apex of trust in up-time technology prove to be a precipitous height from which their fortunes would fall.

The black ships seemed to have grown slightly larger in the last several seconds.  

Chapter 4

East of Dominica

Hannibal Sehested scrambled up Resolve‘s almost vertical “stairs” from his berth beneath the quarterdeck. As his head cleared the top of the companionway, a gust from the bow sped past his nose, pulling his forelock after it.

Cornelis Evertsen was smiling at him from the rail. “Not a morning for wigs, eh, Lord Sehested?”

“Evidently not,” the Norwegian replied as he came on deck, unsure whether Evertsen’s jocular tone was simply an extension of his general good spirits or a veiled snicker at the noble’s incongruous presence aboard the warship. “You summoned me to meet a representative of the English? Here?”

“Nothing quite so grand as that, sir,” Evertsen said with the same smile. “Merely the master of a Bermudan sloop. But Admiral Tromp thought it prudent to summon you.”

Sehested nodded, resisting the urge to bat away the locks now flying about his face like angry, diaphanous birds. “Thank you, lieutenant. Please lead on.”

Evertsen made a small bow and led aft.

Sehested trailed behind, reflecting that, possibly for the first time since arriving in the New World, he might look every bit as ridiculous as he felt. Particularly when people addressed him as “Lord” Sehested.

Oh, he had always aspired to that. Certainly that had been the point of all his expensive schooling and travel in Denmark, France, Germany, and Holland: to enable him to make the leap from aristocrat to bona fide nobility. But then the up-timers had arrived in their mysterious Ring of Fire and within a year, he was being summoned to the court of King Christian IV in Copenhagen. Why? Because of the attainments and abilities of his older self in that other history.

He soon noted a similar predilection growing among the rulers of his era. A surprising number of even the most enlightened monarchs had rushed to consult the histories of that world which would now never be as a means of identifying promising young assistants and proteges based on the exploits of their other selves. The logical and philosophical bases of such a course of action seemed dubious at best, to young Hannibal, but as their beneficiary, he was not disposed to make those opinions public.

So Christian IV had made him a noble a full five years before he had been so elevated in the “other” world, an act that was, to Sehested’s mind, a rather stunning display of his sovereign’s tendency toward both blind egoism and uncritical teleology. Ever since then, Hannibal had operated under a self-imposed pressure that few other humans had ever known: the need to meet the expectations spawned by the deeds of an alter ego who had never existed.

He watched Evertsen reach the stern of Resolve, extend a hand over the side to assist someone coming up the Jacob’s ladder that was hanging down over the transom. The Dutchman was probably just a good-natured fellow, the kind who greeted others with a smile as a matter of habit, but Hannibal could no longer see such things clearly. His unwonted ascendance had spawned enough veiled dismay and amusement in Christian’s court, and in other places of prestige and power, that he no longer trusted those instincts.

Evertsen was surprisingly strong for his long, lean build; he practically hauled a diminutive individual over the stern of Resolve with a single hand. The masthead of a Bermuda-rigged sloop bobbed into and out of sight beyond the taffrail.

The small man — his skin weathered and tanned to the texture and color of a walnut — stared from Kees to Hannibal. “Ye’re neither of ye Tromp hisself, I wager?”

Kees smiled broadly. “You would win that bet, Captain–?”

“Stirke. Master Timothy Stirke. I’ve got news for yer admiral.” He grimaced apologetically. “Only fer him, I’m afraid.”

“I understand,” Evertsen said calmly. “But before we join the admiral, may I present Lord Hannibal Sehested from the court of His Majesty King Christian IV of Denmark?”

Stirke considered Hannibal. “Denmark, it is? That’s news to these ears. What’s yer interest in these waters, then?”