A Mighty Fortress – Snippet 33

But when the enemy ship took the offered advantage, Mahntain would execute the instructions he’d been given earlier. Blessed Warrior would immediately alter course, swinging from her heading of north-northwest to one of west-by-north or even west-southwest, taking the wind almost dead abeam. That course would carry her directly across the Charisian ship’s bow, giving her the opportunity to rake the larger, heavier galleon from a position in which none of the Charisian’s guns could bear upon her in reply.

As soon as he’d crossed the Charisian’s course, Mahntain would come back onto his original heading . . . by which time (if all had gone according to plan) the Charisian and Archangel Chihiro would have overtaken Blessed Warrior. The bigger galleon would be trapped between Wailahr’s two lighter vessels, where their superior number of guns ought to prove decisive.

Of course, it’s unlikely things will go exactly “according to plan,” Wailahr reminded himself. On the other hand, even if we don’t pull it off exactly, we should still end up with the tactical advantage.

The Charisian wouldn’t be able to turn away to prevent Blessed Warrior from raking her from ahead without exposing her equally vulnerable — and even more fragile — stern to Archangel Chihiro’s broadside. She wouldn’t have much choice but to remain broadside-to-broadside with the flagship. So unless Archangel Chihiro took crippling damage to her rigging in the opening broadsides, or unless someone collided with someone else, the advantage should still go to the Desnairians.

And a collision will work to our advantage, too, Wailahr thought grimly. Good as the Imperial Charisian Marines were, Wailahr’s crews would outnumber the Charisians by two-to-one. A collision that let him board the larger ship and settle things with cold steel wouldn’t exactly be the worst outcome he could imagine.

* * * * * * * * * *

Captain Yairley watched the tip of Destiny’s jibboom edging steadily closer to the Desnarian galleon. He could read the other ship’s name off her counter now — Archangel Chihiro, which didn’t leave much doubt about who she’d actually been built to serve — and even without his spyglass, he could make out individual officers and men quite clearly.

Archangel Chihiro, despite her shorter, stubbier length, stood higher out of of the water than Destiny which undoubtedly made her crankier and more leewardly. She also had less tumblehome (undoubtedly a legacy of her merchant origins), and her forecastle and aftercastle had both been cut down at least somewhat during her conversion. She’d retained enough height aft, however, for a complete poop deck, and in some ways, Yairley wished Destiny had possessed the same feature. Destiny’s helmsmen’s quarterdeck position left them completely exposed — to musketry, as well as cannon fire — whereas Archangel Chihiro’s wheel was located under the poop deck, where it was both concealed and protected.

As if to punctuate Yairley’s reflections, muskets began to fire from the other vessel. They were matchlocks, not flintlocks, which gave them an abysmally low rate of fire. They were also smoothbores, which wasn’t going to do any great wonders for their accuracy, although pinpoint precision wasn’t much of a factor firing from one moving ship at personnel on the deck of another moving ship. Whether or not any particular target was actually hit under those circumstances was largely a matter of chance, although it was just a bit difficult to remember that when a musket ball went humming past one’s ear.

As one had just done, a corner of his mind observed.

Marine marksmen in the fore and maintops began returning fire, and if their rifled weapons weren’t a lot more accurate under the conditions which obtained, the fact that they were armed with flintlocks, not matchlocks, at least gave them a substantially higher rate of fire. Someone screamed at one of the midship starboard carronades as one of those matchlocks did find a target, and Yairley saw a body pitch over the side of Archangel Chihiro’s mizzentop and smash down on the poop deck with bone-pulverizing force as one of his Marines returned the compliment.

I think we’re just about close enough, now, he mused, and glanced at Lathyk.

“Now, Master Lathyk!” he said crisply, and the first lieutenant blew his whistle.

* * * * * * * * * *

Sir Hairahm Wailahr didn’t even turn his head as the seaman’s body crashed onto the poop deck behind him. The man had probably been dead even before he fell; he was almost certainly dead now, and it wouldn’t have been the first corpse Wailahr had ever seen. He paid no more attention to it than he did to the splinters suddenly feathering the planking around his feet as three or four Charisian musket balls thudded into the deck. The other ship’s marksmen had obviously recognized him as an officer, he noted, even if they didn’t realize exactly how rich a prize he would make. Yet it was a distant observation, one which was not allowed to penetrate below the surface of his mind. The commodore was scarcely unaware of his own mortality, but he had other things to worry about as the tip of the Charisian’s long, lance-like jibboom started to creep level with Archangel Chihiro’s taffrail.

Langhorne, this is going to hurt! he told himself. The Charisian was coming even closer than he’d anticipated. It looked as if the other galleon’s captain intended to engage from a range of no more than thirty yards. At that range, not even Wailahr’s relatively inexperienced gunners were likely to miss, and he grimaced as he considered the carnage which was about to be inflicted.

But on both of us, my heretical friend, he thought grimly. On both of us.

Another few minutes, and —

* * * * * * * * * *

“Larboard your helm!” Sir Dunkyn Yairley snapped. “Roundly, now!”

“Helm a-lee, aye, Sir!” Chief Waigan acknowledged, and he and his assistant spun the big double-wheel’s spokes blurringly to larboard.

The motion of the wheel moved the ship’s tiller to larboard, which kicked her rudder in the opposite direction. Which, in turn, caused the ship to turn abruptly to starboard.

* * * * * * * * * *

Wailahr’s eyes widened as the Charisian suddenly altered course. It was the last thing he’d expected, especially since it sent her turning away from Archangel Chihiro — turning up to windward across his flagship’s wake, and not ranging alongside to leeward as he’d expected. Her yards tracked around with metronome precision as her heading altered, continuing to drive her, yet she slowed drastically as her new course brought her up closer to the wind, and Wailahr’s initial surprise began to turn into a frown of confusion as he found himself looking at the Charisian galleon’s larboard gunports.

Her closed larboard gunports, since it was her starboard broadside she’d run out when she cleared for action.

* * * * * * * * * *

“Roundly, lads! Roundly!” Hektor shouted down through the hatch gratings.

The admonition probably wasn’t necessary. The officers and men in charge of Destiny’s main armament had undoubtedly heard Lieutenant Lathyk’s whistle almost as well as the carronade gunners on the spar deck weapons. Captain Yairley wasn’t the sort to take chances on something like that, however. It was one of his fundamental principles that a competent officer did everything he could before the battle to minimize the chance of errors or misunderstandings. They were going to happen, anyway, once battle was fairly joined, but a good officer did his best to see to it there were as few as possible . . . and that they didn’t happen any earlier than they had to.

And this particular evolution presented plenty of opportunity for things to go wrong.

As the ship rounded up to windward, the seamen who’d been ostentatiously manning the weather carronades (as any wall-eyed idiot on the other ship could plainly see) turned as one and charged, obedient to Lathyk’s whistle, to the opposite side of the deck. The short, stubby carronades of the larboard battery, already loaded and primed, were run out quickly, in plenty of time, but the heavier gundeck weapons were both much more massive and far less handy.

The good news was that no one aboard Archangel Chihiro had been able to see Destiny’s gundeck. Captain Yairley had been able to send full gun crews to his larboard battery without giving away his intentions. Now the larboard gunports snapped open, gun captains shouted orders, and men grunted with explosive effort as they flung their weight onto side tackles. Gun trucks squealed like angry pigs as they rumbled across planking which had been sanded for better traction, and the long, wicked snouts of the new-model krakens thrust out of the suddenly open ports.

There wasn’t much time to aim.

Fortunately, HMS Destiny’s gun captains had enjoyed plenty of practice.

* * * * * * * * * *

The world came apart in a deafening bellow of lightning-shot thunder.

Sir Hairahm Wailahr had never imagined anything like it. To be fair, no one who had never experienced it could have accurately imagined it. He stood on the tall, narrow poop deck of his flagship — a deck little more than forty feet long and barely twenty feet across at its widest point — and twenty-seven heavy cannon exploded in a long, unending drumroll, spitting fire and blinding, choking smoke as Destiny crossed Archangel Chihiro’s stern and her broadside came to bear from a range of perhaps fifty feet. The two ships were so close together that Destiny’s jibboom had actually swung across her enemy’s poop, barely clearing Archangel Chihiro’s mizzen shrouds, as she altered course almost all the way to northeast-by-east, and the concussive force of that many cannon, firing at that short a range, each gun loaded with a charge of grape on top of its round shot, was indescribable. He actually felt the heat of the exploding powder, felt vast, invisible fists of muzzle blast punching his entire body with huge bubbles of overpressure. Felt the fabric of his flagship bucking and jerking — slamming upward against his feet as if some maniac were pounding the soles of his shoes with a baseball bat — as the Charisian fire crashed into her. Planking splintered, the glass of Archangel Chihiro’s big stern windows simply disappeared, and the screams and high-pitched shrieks of men who’d been taken just as completely by surprise as Wailahr himself ripped at his ears even through the incredible thunder of Destiny’s guns.

Cleared for action, Archangel Chihiro’s gundeck was one vast cave, stretching from bow to stern. A cavern edged with guns, nosing out through the open ports, waiting for a target to appear before them. But the target wasn’t there. It was astern of them, where the gunners crewing those guns couldn’t even see it, far less fire back at it, and six-inch iron spheres came howling down that cavern’s length like Shan-wei’s own demons.

Half a dozen of the galleon’s lizards took direct hits, their carriages disintegrating into clouds of additional splinters, the heavy bronze gun tubes leaping upward, then crashing back down to crush and mangle the survivors of their crews. Human beings caught in the path of one of those round shot were torn in half with casual, appalling ease. Splinters of the ship’s fabric — some of them as much as six feet long and three or four inches in diameter — slammed into fragile flesh and blood like spears hurled by some enraged titan. Men shrieked as they clutched at torn and riven bodies, and other men simply flew backward, heads or chests or shoulders destroyed in explosions of gore as grapeshot — each almost three inches in diameter — smashed into them.

That single broadside killed or wounded almost half of Archangel Chihiro’s crew.

* * * * * * * * * *

“Bring her back off the wind, Waigan!”

The captain had to raise his voice to be heard, yet it seemed preposterously calm, almost thoughtful, to Chief Waigan.

“Aye, aye, Sir!” the petty officer replied sharply, and the wheel went over in the opposite direction as Destiny’s rudder was reversed.

The galleon didn’t like it, but she answered like the lady she was. Her hull heaved awkwardly as she swung back to the west, across the waves, but Yairley had timed the maneuver almost perfectly, and the wind helped push her back around.

Destiny came back before the wind, then swept even farther to larboard, taking the wind on her larboard quarter instead of her starboard beam, and her topsail yards swung with machinelike precision as they were trimmed back around.

She’d lost a great deal of her speed through the water, and Archangel Chihiro’s motion had continued to carry her away from Yairley’s ship, along her earlier course. But there was far too much confusion aboard the Desnairian ship for Captain Ahbaht — or, rather, Lieutenant Mahrtynsyn, since Ruhsail Ahbaht had encountered one of Destiny’s round shot — to even consider altering heading. Her officers were still fighting to reestablish control after the incredible carnage of that first broadside when Destiny swept across Archangel Chihiro’s stern yet again, this time from northeast to southwest, rather than southwest to northeast.

There hadn’t been time for her gun crews to reload, but they didn’t have to. The starboard guns had been loaded before they were run out, and even with so many hands detailed to man the braces, the starboard battery’s officers had been left more than enough crewmen to fire the already loaded weapons. The range was much greater — well over a hundred yards this time. Closer to a hundred and fifty, actually. But not enough closer to a hundred and fifty.

* * * * * * * * * *

“Clear away that wreckage! Get it over the side — now!” Sir Hairahm Wailahr shouted.

A commodore had no business allowing himself to be distracted from his responsibilities as a flag officer. Wailahr might not be a sailor, but he knew that much. Unfortunately, there was damn-all else he could do at the moment, and he actually grabbed one end of the broken length of gangway which had fallen across the upper deck guns himself. He heaved, grunting with effort, fighting to clear away the wreckage blocking the guns, then wheeled back around, his head coming up, his eyes darting to the wind-shredded smoke astern of his flagship, as HMS Destiny fired her second broadside.

The next best thing to thirty more heavy round shot came screaming at him. The range was much greater this time, and, unlike the last broadside, many of these shot missed Archangel Chihiro entirely. But some of them didn’t, and one of those which didn’t crashed into the mizzenmast, cutting it cleanly in two eight feet above the deck. It toppled forward, smashing into the mainmast with all its own weight added to the driving pressure of the wind, and the mainmast went with it. Archangel Chihiro shuddered like a mortally wounded prong lizard, then heaved as a torrent of shattered spars and shredded canvas came crashing down across her decks or plunged into the sea alongside. She surged wildly, rounding to the sudden sea anchor of her own rigging, and fresh screams echoed as still more of her crew were crushed under the falling spars or torn apart by the Charisian fire.

Wailahr staggered clear of the broken mizzen, right hand clutching his left arm. That arm was almost as badly broken as his flagship, a corner of his brain reflected — not that it mattered a great deal at the moment.

He watched, his eyes bitter with understanding, as the Charisian galleon altered course yet again. She swung back, coming fully back before the wind, her spars once more tracking around as if controlled by a single hand. She leaned to the wind, driving hard as she accelerated once more, and he saw the topgallants blossoming above her topsails. They fell like curtains, then hardened as sheets and tacks were tended, and Destiny came storming past Archangel Chihiro.

Wailahr turned, looking for Blessed Warrior.

He knew Captain Mahntain must have been taken at least as much aback by the Charisians’ unexpected maneuvers as Ahbaht and he himself had been. Blessed Warrior had altered course almost automatically when Destiny opened fire, swinging around onto a westerly heading as originally arranged. Unfortunately, that was the only part of Wailahr’s original arrangements which had worked as planned. Worse, neither Destiny nor Archangel Chihiro were where he’d expected them to be when he planned his original tactics. Now Blessed Warrior was well to the southwest of her original track . . . and Destiny, edging around to north-by-northwest, was already heading to pass astern of her — and with the advantage of the weather gauge, as well — rather than finding herself broadside-to-broadside with both of her opponents at once.

The Charisian galleon’s starboard broadside flamed and thundered yet again as she swept past Archangel Chihiro, heading for her second victim. The foremast, already weakened by the loss of the stays which had once led aft to the vanished mainmast, pitched over the side, leaving Archangel Chihiro completely dismasted. The ship rolled madly, drunkenly, corkscrewing indescribably as the sudden loss of all her tophamper destroyed any vestige of stability, only to snub savagely as she brought up short against the wreckage still anchored to her side by the broken shrouds. Lieutenant Mahrtynsyn was still on his feet, somehow, shouting commands, driving parties of his surviving seamen to clear away the wreckage. Axes flashed and thudded, chopping through tangled cordage, fighting to free the ship even while other sailors and Marines dragged sobbing, screaming, or silently writhing wounded out of the debris.

Destiny’s passing broadside added still more torn and broken bodies to her cruel toll, but it was obvious Archangel Chihiro had become little more than an afterthought to the Charisian vessel. Wailahr’s flagship was a broken ruin, so badly mangled, with so many of her people dead or wounded, that she could be gathered in any time Destiny got around to it. The enemy had more important concerns at the moment, and Hairahm Wailahr’s jaw clenched with something far worse than the pain of his broken arm.

He knew Tohmys Mahntain. If there was a single ounce of quitter in Mahntain’s entire body, Wailahr had never seen even a hint of it, and Blessed Warrior was already altering course. Her sail drill lacked Destiny’s polished precision, and the ship wallowed around to her new heading unhappily, sails flapping and thundering in protest. Her maneuver managed to turn her stern away from her enemy before Destiny could rake her as she had Archangel Chihiro, and her starboard guns ran out defiantly. Yet gallant and determined as Mahntain undoubtedly was, the awkwardness with which his ship came onto her new heading only emphasized how little comparison there was between the skill level of his crew and that of the Charisian galleon slicing towards him. He wasn’t simply outgunned and outweighed; he was outclassed, and a part of Sir Hairahm Wailahr wished he still had an intact mast and signal halyards. Wished he could order Mahntain to break off the action and run for it.

Or surrender, he admitted to himself with bleak, terrible honesty as he watched Sir Dunkyn Yairley’s ship stoop upon her fresh prey like a hunting wyvern. He can’t break off — can’t outrun her or avoid her. And since he can’t —

Fresh thunder rolled across the icy afternoon sea as the Charisian galleon, as merciless as the kraken emblem of the Ahrmahks flying from its mizzen yard, opened fire yet again.