A Mighty Fortress – Snippet 32

“Indeed they might, but not this far out to sea, I’m thinking.” He indicated the brisk wind, the motion of the hard-driven ship, with a twitch of his head. “These conditions are a bit lively for a lubberly lot like the Desnairian Navy, wouldn’t you say, Master Aplyn-Ahrmahk? I’d expect them to stay closer to home if all they’re after is sail drill, especially if there are only two of them. We’re a good six hundred and fifty leagues from their shipyards at Geyra — and over a hundred leagues off Hennet Head, for that matter. It’s possible they’re from the ships building in the Gulf of Jahras instead of the Geyra yards. God knows they’re building a lot more of their total navy in the Gulf than they are at Geyra. But even that would be an awful long way to come just to drill their crews, and I’d think Baron Jahras would be a tad nervous about having just two of his meet a squadron or two of our galleons when they decided to venture out into deeper water. He’s certainly been . . . cautious enough about things like that so far, at least. So I wonder . . . .”

The captain stood thinking for several more moments, then nodded again, this time obviously to himself, before he glanced once more at the youthful ensign standing beside him.

“I can think of one good reason for them to be here, Master Aplyn-Ahrmahk,” he said with a slight smile. “And if I’m right, the men are going to be just a bit unhappy that we sighted them when we did, instead of a few days later.”

“Sir?” Hektor suppressed an urge to scratch his head in puzzlement, and Yairley’s smile broadened.

“Now then, Master Aplyn-Ahrmahk! A captain has to maintain at least a few little secrets, don’t you think?”

* * * * * * * * * *

“Excuse me, Sir.”

Captain Ahbaht turned, raising one eyebrow, to face Lieutenant Laizair Mahrtynsyn, Archangel Chihiro’s first lieutenant.

“Yes, Laizair? What is it?” Ahbaht’s tone was a bit brusque. He and Mahrtynsyn normally got along quite well, but at the moment, as the pursuing vessel’s lower masts began to loom above the horizon, even from deck level, the captain had a few things on his mind. The distance to the other ship was down to little more than seven miles, and given their present speeds, she would be up to Archangel Chihiro in no more than two or two and a half hours. For that matter, she’d be into extreme gunshot in little more than ninety minutes.

“Master Chaimbyrs” — Mahrtynsyn twitched his head slightly in the direction of the mizzen top, where Lieutenant Chaimbyrs was ensconced watching the other ship — “reports that he’s just seen her colors, Sir. She’s flying the Charisian banner . . . and a commission streamer.”

Ahbaht’s expression tightened ever so slightly. Only someone who knew the captain well would have noticed, but Mahrtynsyn did know him well. And he also knew exactly what Ahbaht was thinking. The fact that Chaimbyrs had finally seen the colors which had been masked by her canvas only confirmed the captain’s previous near-certainty that she had to be Charisian. But the commission streamer . . . that was something else entirely. No privateer would have been flying that. Only ships of the Royal Charisian Navy — or, rather, the Imperial Charisian Navy, these days — flew those.

“I see,” Ahbaht said, after a moment. “And has he had an opportunity to estimate her force?”

“We’ve not seen her ports yet, Sir, but she’s carrying at least ten or twelve of their short guns on her weather deck. Probably more. And,” Mahrtynsyn added almost apologetically, “Master Chaimbyrs says she doesn’t look merchant-built to him.”

The tightening around the captain’s eyes was more noticeable this time. If Chaimbyrs’ estimates were correct — and the second lieutenant was quite a competent officer — then their pursuer wasn’t simply an imperial warship, but one of the Charisian Navy’s new, purpose-built galleons, whereas both of Wailahr’s ships were converted merchant vessels.

“I see,” Ahbaht repeated, nodding to his first officer. “Thank you, Master Mahrtynsyn.”

Mahrtynsyn touched his chest in salute, then withdrew to the larboard side of the quarterdeck while Ahbaht clasped his hands behind his back and turned to the rail, gazing out across the crested waves in obvious thought.

The lieutenant didn’t envy his captain at the moment. On the other hand, he didn’t feel an enormous amount of sympathy, either. For the most part, he respected Ahbaht as a seaman, although for all his years of naval service, the captain had precious little experience with galleons. Virtually all of his previous time had been served aboard the Desnairian Navy’s limited number of galleys, and his ship handling skills, while adequate, weren’t as good as Mahrtynsyn’s own. In fact, that was one reason Mahrtynsyn had been assigned as his first lieutenant.

In terms of military experience, though, Ahbaht was far more qualified to command than Mahrtynsyn was, and the lieutenant knew it. Of course, no one in Desnairian service had any experience at all in broadside gunnery tactics, but at least Ahbaht had smelled powder smoke in actual combat, which was more than Mahrtynsyn had. Given that experience, Ahbaht had to be (or damned well ought to be, at any rate) even better aware of the looming confrontation’s balance of combat power than Mahrtynsyn was.

Not to mention the minor fact that he should, perhaps, have been just a bit more careful about, spent a little more time thinking over, what he had recommended to Commodore Wailahr.

At first glance, Wailahr’s two ships ought to have had the advantage. There were two of them, after all. But that wasn’t all that was involved here — not by a long shot.

One of the Charisian Navy’s new galleons would mount at least fifty guns (and probably more) to Archangel Chihiro’s forty. Worse, they’d be heavier guns. Archangel Chihiro, like her consort, Blessed Warrior, carried twenty-six lizards on her gundeck, and fourteen falcons on her upper deck. That might seem to give her eighty percent of the Charisian’s broadside, and all of their guns not only had the new trunnions and carriages but used the new bagged powder charges the Charisians had introduced, so they ought to be able to match the other ship’s rate of fire, as well. So far, all well and good, Mahrtynsyn thought dryly. But the lizards’ round shot weighed only a bit over twenty pounds each, and the falcons’ weighed less than nine, while if the reports about the Charisians were correct, the other ship would mount long thirty-pounders on her gundeck and short thirty-pounders — what the Charisians called “carronades” — on her upper deck.

Which would give her over twice Archangel Chihiro’s weight of metal. In fact, she’d carry a heavier weight of broadside than both the Desnarian ships combined . . . in a much more heavily framed and planked hull. And that changed Ahbaht’s earlier calculations significantly. Not only would each hit be far more destructive than he almost certainly had been expecting, but her heavier hull would take substantially less damage from each hit she received in return.

Of course, two lighter ships, if well handled, ought to be able to outmaneuver a single opponent, and it was extremely unlikely the Charisian carried a big enough crew to fully man both broadsides — especially if she had to reserve hands to manage her own sails. If they could get to grips with her from both sides simultaneously, they ought to be able to overpower her in fairly short order. But while the sail-handling skills of Archangel Chihiro’s crew had improved hugely since they’d left Desnair the City, Mahrtynsyn very strongly doubted they could even come close to an experienced Charisian crew’s level of competence.

He felt fairly confident that, since the other ship had been cruising alone, with no one else in company with her, Ahbaht had assumed she was most likely a privateer, not a regular man-of-war. It would have been a reasonable enough assumption, in many ways, and had it proved accurate, she would have been far more lightly gunned, while the quality of her ship’s company would have been much more problematical, as well. Besides, privateers weren’t in the business of taking hard knocks if they could avoid it. If a privateer’s skipper had realized he was pursuing two Desnarian warships, rather than a pair of fat merchant prizes, he would almost certainly have decided his time could be more profitably spent elsewhere. A Charisian Navy captain was likely to feel a bit differently about that.

But just how does the Captain break the news to the Commodore? Mahrtynsyn wondered a bit sardonically. “Excuse me, Commodore, but it turns out that’s a war galleon back there, instead. And I’m just a bit less confident about beating her than I was about beating a privateer.” The lieutenant snorted mentally. Sure, I can just hear him saying that!

No. Ahbaht wasn’t going to risk pissing Wailahr off by turning cautious at this point. And since Wailahr lacked the seagoing experience to realize exactly how weight of metal and — especially — relative ship handling skills really factored into a sea battle, it was unlikely he was going to recognize just how dicey this entire situation could turn. He certainly wasn’t going to decide to try avoiding action at this point. Not without Ahbaht suggesting it, at any rate.

Which meant things were going to get just a bit lively in the next two hours or so.

* * * * * * * * * *

Sir Dunkyn Yairley gazed ahead at the towering canvas of the Desnairian ships and scratched his chin thoughtfully. As always, the prospect of battle created a hollow, unsettled feeling in his belly. None of his officers and men appeared to share his apprehension, and it was, of course, unthinkable for him to reveal it to them. He often wondered if he was truly fundamentally different from them in that regard, or if they were simply better at hiding their emotions than he was.

Not that it mattered at the moment.

“Well,” he remarked out loud, permitting neither his voice nor his expression to hint at any internal trepidation, “at least they seem to have figured out we’re not just some deaf, dumb, and blind merchant ship!”

The men manning the quarterdeck carronades heard him, as he’d intended, and grinned. Some of them nudged each other in amusement, and a couple actually chuckled. No sign they felt anything but confident anticipation!

Cheerful idiots, aren’t they? Yairley thought, but there was as much affectionate amusement of his own as exasperation in the reflection.

He pushed the thought aside as he reconsidered his position.

He was confident he had an accurate appraisal of the other ships’ armament, now, and he rather wished he’d been up against a few less guns. His own were heavier, and he had no doubt his gun crews were far more experienced, and almost certainly better drilled, into the bargain. But eighty guns were still eighty guns, and he had only fifty-four.

I wonder if that’s a galley commander over there? he mused.

It could well make a difference, given the habits of thought involved. Galley captains thought in terms of head-on approaches — since their chase armament, which always mounted the heaviest guns, fired only directly ahead — and boarding tactics. And a galley captain would almost certainly be less skilled when it came to maneuvering a fundamentally clumsy thing like a square-rigged galleon. Besides, galleys had oars. Captains accustomed to being able to row directly into the wind tended to have a less lively appreciation for the value of the weather gauge.

Yairley stopped scratching his chin and clasped his hands behind him, his expression distant as he contemplated the narrowing stretch of water between Destiny and her adversaries. The Desnairians weren’t quite in line. The wind had backed about five points — from south-southeast to east-southeast — during the long hours since the chase had begun, and the rearmost of the two ships was a good two hundred yards to leeward and astern of her consort as they sailed along on the starboard tack. Yairley wondered if that was intentional or simply sloppy station keeping. Or, for that matter, if it simply represented lack of experience on his opponents’ part. The Desnairian Empire did still follow the tradition of putting army officers in charge of warships, after all.

Let’s not get too overconfident in that respect, Dunkyn, he reminded himself. Still, we can hope, can’t we?

Two hundred yards might not sound like an enormous distance to a landsman, but Yairley was no landsman. To an artillerist accustomed to thinking in terms of land battles fought on nice, motionless pieces of dirt, two hundred yards would equate to easy canister range, where it would be difficult for any semi-competent gun crew to miss a target fifty-plus yards long, six or seven yards high, and the next best thing to ten yards wide. For a seaman, accustomed to the fact that his gun platform was likely to be moving in at least three different directions simultaneously, completely irrespective of his target’s motion, a two hundred-yard range was something else entirely.

Like a perfectly good range to completely waste powder and shot at, the captain thought dryly. Which means those two fellows over there are out of effective support range of one another. Unless I’m obliging enough to sail directly between them, at any rate!

He glanced up at his own sails, and decided.

“Master Lathyk.”

“Yes, Sir?”

“Let’s get the t’gallants off her, if you please.”

“Aye, aye, Sir!” The first lieutenant touched his chest in salute, then raised his leather speaking trumpet. “Hands to reduce sail!” he bellowed through it, and feet thundered across the deck planking in response.

* * * * * * * * * *

Laizair Mahrtynsyn watched the Charisian through narrow eyes from his station on Archangel Chihiro’s quarterdeck. She was sweeping steadily closer, with her starboard battery run out while she angled towards Archangel Chihiro’s larboard quarter, which didn’t surprise Mahrtynsyn a great deal. It didn’t please him, but it didn’t surprise him, either. The one thing of which he was completely confident was that Cayleb Ahrmahk wasn’t in the habit of assigning his most powerful warships to people who didn’t know what to do with them, and that Charisian captain over there obviously recognized the huge maneuver advantage his possession of the weather gauge bestowed upon him. Because of his position to windward, the choice of when and how to initiate action lay completely in his hands, and he clearly understood exactly what to do with that advantage.

Mahrtynsyn only wished he was more confident that Captain Ahbaht understood the same thing.

Whether Ahbaht understood that or not, it was already painfully evident to Mahrtynsyn that the Charisian galleon was being far more ably handled than his own ship. Archangel Chihiro’s sail drill had improved immeasurably during her lengthy voyage from Desnair. Despite that, however, the precision of the other ship’s drill as she reduced canvas only underscored how far Archangel Chihiro’s own company still had to go. The Charisian’s fore course was brailed up and her topgallants disappeared with mechanical precision, as if whisked away by the wave of a single wizard’s magic wand. Two of her jibs disappeared, as well, as she reduced to fighting sail, yet even with her sail area drastically reduced, she continued to forge steadily closer.

Her speed had dropped with the reduction of sail, but that didn’t make Mahrtynsyn a lot happier. Archangel Chihiro and Blessed Warrior had taken in their own courses in preparation for battle, and that had cost them even more speed than the Charisian had given up. She still had an advantage of close to two knots, and she was only eight hundred yards astern. In fifteen minutes, give or take, she’d be right alongside, and it was evident what her captain had in mind. He intended to keep to leeward of Archangel Chihiro, engaging her larboard broadside with his own starboard guns. With the shift in the wind, both ships were heeling harder now, so his shots might tend to go high, but it would allow him to engage the flagship in isolation, where Blessed Warrior would be unable to engage him closely. In a straight broadside duel, the heavier Charisian galleon would almost certainly overpower Archangel Chihiro in relatively short order.

Still, if the Captain and the Commodore’s plans work out, it won’t be a straight broadside duel, now will it?

No, it wouldn’t. Unfortunately, Lieutenant Mahrtynsyn suspected that that Charisian captain over there might just have a few plans of his own.

* * * * * * * * * *

“All right, Master Lathyk,” Sir Dunkyn Yairley said, “I think it’s about time.”

“Aye, Sir,” the first lieutenant responded gravely, and beckoned to Hektor.

“Stand ready, Master Aplyn-Ahrmahk,” he said, and Hektor nodded — under the rather special circumstances obtaining at the moment, he’d been specifically instructed not to salute in acknowledgment where anyone on the enemy ship might see it — and moved idly a bit closer to the hatch gratings at the center of Destiny’s spar deck. He glanced down through the latticework at the gundeck below. The long thirty-pounders were run out and waiting to starboard, and he smiled as he noted the gun crews’ distribution.

It was not a particularly pleasant expression.

“Man tacks and braces!” he heard Lathyk shout behind him.

* * * * * * * * * *

Commodore Wailahr stood on Archangel Chihiro’s poop deck, gazing at the steadily approaching Charisian ship.

It was evident to him that Captain Ahbaht had been less than delighted to discover just how powerful their adversary actually was. Well, Wailahr hadn’t been tempted to turn any celebratory cartwheels himself. And although all of the commodore’s previous combat experience might have been solely on land, his ships had conducted enough gunnery drills for him to suspect their accuracy was going to prove dismal. To some extent, though, that should be true for both sides, and the fact that he had almost twice as many total guns ought to mean he’d score more total hits, as well.

Assuming he could bring all of them into action.

So far, he’s doing what Ahbaht predicted, Hairahm, he reminded himself. Now if he just goes on doing it . . . .

At least before they’d separated to their present distance from one another, Archangel Chihiro and Blessed Warrior had been able to come close enough together for Wailahr and Ahbaht to confer with Captain Tohmys Mahntain, Blessed Warrior’s commanding officer, through their speaking trumpets. Mahntain was a good man — junior to Ahbaht, and a little younger, but also the more aggressive of the two. And he’d understood exactly what Ahbaht and Wailahr had in mind. The commodore was confident of that, and also that he could rely on Mahntain to carry through on his instructions.

More than that, it was evident Ahbaht’s prediction that the enemy would attempt to engage just one of Wailahr’s ships if the opportunity were offered had been accurate. By deliberately opening a gap between the two Desnarian galleons, he and Wailahr had offered up Archangel Chihiro as what had to be a tempting target. If the Charisian kept to larboard, closing in on Archangel Chihiro’s downwind side, she could range up alongside Wailahr’s flagship and pound her with her superior number and weight of guns when none of Blessed Warrior’s guns could be brought to bear in the flagship’s support.