A Mighty Fortress – Snippet 26

HMS Rakurai, 46
Gorath Bay,
Kingdom of Dohlar,
HMS Devastation, 54,
King’s Harbor,
Helen Island,
Kingdom of Old Charis

The brisk afternoon wind had a whetted edge as it swept across the dark blue waters, ruffling the surface with two-foot waves. Here and there a crest of white foam broke almost playfully, and the sharp-toothed breeze hummed in the rigging. Gorath Bay was a well sheltered anchorage, and it was always ice-free year round. But the present air temperature was barely above freezing, and it took very little wind to make a man shiver when it came slicing across the vast, treeless plain of the bay.

The Dohlaran seamen assembled on the deck of HMS Rakurai were certainly doing their share of shivering as they stood waiting for orders.

“Down topgallant masts!”

Captain Raisahndo’s voice rang out from the converted merchantman’s quarterdeck in the official preparatory order, and petty officers gave their working parties warning glances. Earl Thirsk had decided to grace Rakurai with his presence this afternoon, and it had been made thoroughly clear to everyone aboard that today would be a very bad day to be less than perfect.

“Topgallant yardmen in the tops!”

Feet thudded across the deck as the designated topmen flooded up the ratlines. They swept up them like monkey-lizards, fountaining upward into the rigging, yet the dulcet tones of petty officers gently encouraged them to be still speedier.

“Aloft topgallant yardmen!”

The fresh command came almost before they’d finished collecting in the tops and sent them scurrying still higher, swarming up to the level of the topmast cap.

“Man topgallant and mast ropes!”

More seamen moved to their stations at deck level, manning the ropes run through leading blocks on deck, then through blocks hooked to one side of each topmast cap and down through bronze sheaves set into the squared off heels of the topgallant masts. Each mast rope then ran up its mast once more, to the other side of the topmast cap and a securing eyebolt. The result was a line rigged through the topgallant mast heel, designed to support the mast’s weight as it slid down from above and controlled by the deck party assigned to each mast. Other hands eased the topmast stays and shrouds, loosening them slightly, and the next command rang out.

“Haul taut!”

Tension came on the mast ropes, and the officer in charge of each mast examined his own responsibility critically, then raised his hand to signal readiness.

“Sway and unfid!”

Seamen threw still more weight onto the mast ropes, and high above the deck, each topmast rose slightly as the rope rove through its heel lifted it from below. Its heel rose just far enough through the square hole (just barely large enough to allow the heel to move in it) in the topmast trestletrees for a waiting hand to extract the fid — the tapered hardwood pin which normally passed through the heel and rested on the trestletrees to support the topgallant’s weight and lock it in place.

“Lower away together!”

The topgallant masts slid smoothly, gracefully down in almost perfect unison as the men on the mast ropes obeyed the command. Breeching lines and heel ropes both guided and restrained the masts, although the anchorage was sheltered enough, even with the brisk breeze, that there was no real danger of the yard going astray.

The purpose of the exercise wasn’t to bring the masts clear down on deck and stow them, and their downward progress ended when their heels came to a point just above the hounds on their respective lower masts. At the same time the spars came down, the topmen tended to the topgallant rigging. They eased the stays and backstays carefully as the masts descended, then secured it on the topmast caps. If the topgallants had been going to remain struck for any period of time, a capstan bar would have been pushed through the secured stays and lashed into place to help keep things under control. No one bothered with that particular refinement this afternoon, however. There wasn’t much point, since all hands knew they were to enjoy the pleasure of completing the evolution at least three more times before the day was over.

“Lay down from aloft!”

The order brought the topmen back down, even as a heavy lashing was passed through the fid hole and secured around the topmast to hold it in place. The ship looked truncated with her topgallant masts and topmasts doubled that way, but the topgallant was securely stowed in a manner which reduced the height of her rigging by almost a third. The result was to reduce wind resistance aloft and to reduce her rigging’s center of gravity, which might well prove the margin between survival and destruction in the teeth of a winter storm.

The last line was passed, the last lashing secured, and all hands watched tensely as the captain and the admiral surveyed their handiwork. It was a moment of intense stillness, a sort of hushed watchfulness burnished by the sounds of wind and wave, the whistles of wyverns and the cries of gulls. Then Earl Thirsk looked at Raisahndo and nodded gravely.

No one was foolish enough to cheer at the evidence of the admiral’s satisfaction. Even the pressed men of the ship’s company had been aboard long enough to learn better than that. But there were broad grins here and there, born of combined relief (none of them had wanted to consider how the captain would react if they’d embarrassed him in front of the admiral) and pride, the knowledge that they’d done well. Completing an evolution like this in harbor was child’s play compared to accomplishing it at sea, in the dark, in a pitching, rolling vessel. Most of them knew that — some, the relatively small number of seasoned seamen scattered amongst them, from intensely unpleasant personal experience — but they also knew it was something they were going to have to do eventually. None of them were any more enamored of the notion of sweating for the sake of sweating than the next man, but the majority of them preferred to master the necessary skills here rather than trying to pick them up at the last minute in the face of a potentially life-or-death emergency at sea.

That was an unusual attitude, in many ways, especially for crews which contained such large percentages of inexperienced landsmen. Sailors who’d been snapped up by the press gangs tended to resent being dragged away from their snug homes ashore — and from wives and children who depended upon them for support. Given the risks of battle, not to mention the vagaries of disease or accident, the odds were little better than even that they would ever see those wives and children again. That was enough to break any husband or father’s heart, but it didn’t even consider the fact that their impressment generally rendered their families destitute overnight. There was no guarantee the ones they loved would manage to survive in their men’s absence, and even if they did, hardship and hunger were all but guaranteed for most of them. Under the circumstances, it was scarcely surprising that, more often than not, pressed men had to be driven to their tasks, frequently with calculated brutality, until they fused into a cohesive ship’s company. Sometimes they never achieved that fusion at all, and even many of those who eventually would find their places simply lacked the experience — so far, at least — to understand why relentless training was important to them, and not simply to their demanding, hectoring officers and hard-fisted petty officers. That wasn’t the sort of attitude which normally evoked cheerful eagerness for swarming up and down masts on an icy cold afternoon when they could have been below decks, out of the cutting wind.

The attitude of Rakurai’s company was quite different from that, however. In fact, it was different from that which would previously have been seen aboard almost any Dohlaran warship with so many pressed men. Partly that was because this time there’d been relatively little brutality, and that which had been employed had been carefully calculated, fitted to the circumstances which demanded it and administered with ruthless equity. There’d still been at least a few incidents where it had been unnecessary, where a bosun’s mate of the “old school” had resorted to the use of fists or the over enthusiastic employment of his “starter” (a knotted length of rope used to whip “laggards” along), but they’d been remarkably few compared to what would have happened in most other Dohlaran fleets.

Partly that was because so many of the navy’s “old school” bosun’s mates (and captains, for that matter) had been lost in the disastrous campaign which had ended at Rock Point and Crag Hook. Mostly, though, it was because the fleet’s new commander had explained his position on that particular point, among others, with crystalline clarity. And because it had turned out he’d actually meant it, as well. So far, eleven captains who’d made the mistake of assuming he wasn’t serious about his orders concerning unnecessary punishment or brutality had been relieved in disgrace. Given the fact that two of those captains had been even better born than the earl, and that one of them had enjoyed the patronage of the Duke of Thorast himself, none of his remaining captains were inclined to doubt he’d meant what he said the first time.

There was another reason, as well, though — one that grew out of acceptance from below even more than out of restraint from above, and one which had won Earl Thirsk a degree of devotion almost unheard of among impressed seamen. No one knew exactly how word of it had gotten out, but it was common knowledge in the fleet that the earl had personally argued that since the fleet was being manned for Mother Church’s service, Mother Church ought to assume responsibility for the well-being of the pressed men’s families. The wage of a common sailor in the Royal Dohlaran Navy wasn’t much, but Mother Church would see to it that the money was paid directly to a man’s family during his absence, if that was his request. More than that, and totally unprecedented, the Church had promised to pay a pension to the widow of any impressed seaman who died on active service and to provide for the support of his minor children, as well.

All of which helped to explain why there were remarkably few groans of resignation as the captain and the admiral returned to Rakurai’s poop deck and the captain reached for his speaking trumpet yet again.

“Up topgallant masts!”

* * * * * * * * * *

“They’re getting better at that than I’d really like,” Sir Domynyk Staynair, the Baron of Rock Point, observed quietly.

The one-legged admiral leaned comfortably back in an overstuffed armchair, the wooden peg which had replaced the calf of his right leg resting on a foot stool in front of him. Kraken-oil lamps burned brightly, hanging from the deckhead, and the sleeping bulk of his new flagship was quiet about him as she lay at anchor while he watched the recorded imagery play out before his eyes. The lowered topgallant masts were moving back up into position as smoothly as they’d descended, as if controlled by a single hand, and he shook his head.

“Agreed,” Merlin Athrawes’ voice replied in his right ear, speaking from his palace bedchamber in Cherayth, the better part of seven thousand miles away. It was just past midnight in King’s Harbor, but the first, very faint traces of an icy winter dawn could be seen out of Merlin’s window. “Of course, it’s all still drill, under pretty much ideal circumstances. And they still aren’t as good at it as our people are.”

“Maybe not,” Rock Point conceded. “Then again, nobody’s as good at it as our people are, and I’d just as soon keep it that way.” He shook his head again. “Proficiency builds confidence, Merlin, and the last thing we need is for these people to start feeling confident about facing us at sea.” He paused for a moment, head cocked as if in thought, then snorted. “Allow me to correct myself. The next to last thing we need is for them to start feeling confident about their competence. The last thing we need is for them to actually develop that competence. And that, unfortunately, is exactly what Thirsk seems to be doing.”

“Agreed,” Merlin repeated, this time in something much more like a sigh. “I’ve discovered that, despite myself, I rather admire Thirsk,” he continued. “Still, I’ve also discovered that I can’t quite help wishing he’d encountered a round shot at Crag Hook. For that matter, I can’t help wishing King Rahnyld had gone ahead and had him executed as a scapegoat for Armageddon Reef. It would’ve been grossly unfair, but the man’s entirely too good at his job for my peace of mind.”

“I suppose it’s inevitable they could turn up at least one competent sailor if they looked long enough and hard enough,” Rock Point agreed sourly.

“I don’t think all the time he spent on the beach hurt any, either,” Merlin pointed out. Rock Point raised an interrogative eyebrow, and Merlin grimaced. “The man’s got a brain that’s probably at least as good as Ahlfryd’s,” he pointed out, “and he’s got more actual sea experience than almost anyone else the Church can call on. I think it’s pretty obvious he spent the time they left him ashore to rot using that brain and that experience to analyze all the mistakes Maigwair and idiots like Thorast have been making. They were stupid to park him there, and I’m just as glad they did, but the downside is that they gave him plenty of time to think. Now he’s putting the fruits of all that thinking to work.”

Rock Point made an irate sound of acknowledgment — something midway between a grunt and a growl. Like Merlin and Cayleb, the baron had come to the conclusion that Thirsk was almost certainly Charis’ most dangerous current adversary. As Merlin had just pointed out, the man had a brain, and a dangerously competent one. Worse, he wasn’t a bit afraid of what Merlin called “thinking outside the box.” His insistence that the Church provide for the families of impressed seamen was unheard of, for example. There’d been bitter resistance to the entire notion, and not just from the Church. Quite a few of the Dohlaran Navy’s senior officers had mounted a ferocious attempt to defeat the suggestion. Some of that resistance had been pure reflex in defense of “the way things have always been.” Some of it had stemmed from a fear that the practice would become customary — that the Navy would be expected to assume the same financial responsibilities in the future. But more of it had arisen from simple resentment of the authority and support which both the Duke of Fern and Captain General Maigwair had thrown behind Thirsk. And from Thirsk’s willingness to use that support to smash his way through their sullen resistance. Reformers were seldom beloved, and the degree to which they were resented and loathed was usually in direct proportion to how desperately reform was needed.