How Firm A Foundation – Snippet 08


HMS Destiny, 54,

Off Sand Shoal,

Scrabble Sound,

Grand Duchy of Silkiah


           “Master Zhones!”

          The miserable midshipman, hunched down in his oilskins and trying as hard as he could not to throw up — again — looked up as Lieutenant Symkee bellowed his name. Ahrlee Zhones was twelve years old, more horribly seasick than he’d ever been in his young life, and scared to death. But he was also an officer in training in the Imperial Charisian Navy, and he dragged himself fully upright.

          “Aye, Sir?!” he shouted back through the howl and shriek of the wind.

          “Fetch the Captain!” Zhones and Symkee were no more than five feet apart, but the midshipman could barely hear the second lieutenant through the tumult of the storm. “My compliments, and the wind is backing! Inform him it –”

          “Belay that, Master Zhones!” another voice shouted, and Zhones and Symkee both wheeled around to see Sir Dunkyn Yairley. The captain had somehow magically materialized on the quarterdeck, his oilskins already shining with rain and spray, and his eyes were on the straining staysails. Despite the need to shout to make himself heard, his tone was almost calm —  or so it seemed to Zhones, at any rate.

          As the midshipman watched, the captain took a turn of rope around his chest and attached it to one of the standing lifelines, lashing himself into place almost absently while his attention remained focused on the sails and the barely visible weathervane at the mainmast head. Then he glanced at the illuminated compass card in the binnacle and turned to Symkee.

          “I make it south-by-west, Master Symkee? Would you concur?”

          “Perhaps another quarter point to the south, Sir,” Symkee replied, with what struck Zhones as maddening deliberation, and the captain smiled slightly.

          “Very well, Master Symkee, that will do well enough.” He turned his attention back to the sails and frowned.

          “Any orders, Sir?” Symkee shouted after a moment, and the captain turned to raise one eyebrow at him.

          “When any occur to me, Master Symkee, you’ll be the first to know!” It was, of course, impossible for anyone to shout in a tone of cool reprimand, but the captain managed it anyway, Zhones thought.

          “Aye, Sir!” Symkee touched his chest in salute and carefully turned his attention elsewhere.

* * * * * * * * * *

          Despite his calm demeanor and deflating tone, Sir Dunkyn Yairley’s brain was working overtime as he considered his ship’s geometry. The wind had grown so powerful that he’d had no choice but to put Destiny directly before it some hours earlier. Now the galleon scudded along with huge, white-bearded waves rolling up from astern, their crests ripped apart by the wind. As the wind shifted round towards the east, the ship was being slowly forced from a northeasterly to a more and more northerly course, while the seas — which hadn’t yet adjusted to the shift in wind — still coming in from the south-southwest pounded her more and more from the quarter rather than directly aft, imparting an ugly corkscrew motion. That probably explained young Zhones’ white-faced misery the captain thought with a sort of detached sympathy. The youngster was game enough, but he was definitely prone to seasickness.

          More to the point, the change in motion had alerted Yairley to the change in wind direction and brought him back on deck, and if the wind continued to back, they could be in serious trouble.

          It was impossible even for a seaman of his experience to know exactly how far east he’d managed to get, but he strongly suspected it hadn’t been far enough. If his estimate was correct, they were almost directly due south of the Garfish Bank, the hundred and fifty-mile-long barrier of rock and sand which formed the eastern bound of Scrabble Sound. Langhorne only knew how many ships had come to grief on the bank, and the speed with which the wind had backed was frightening. If it continued at the present rate, it would be setting directly towards the bank within the hour, and if that happened . . . .

* * * * * * * * * *

          The wind did continue to swing towards the east, and its rate of change actually increased. It might — possibly — have dropped in strength, but the malice of its new direction more than compensated for that minor dispensation, Yairley thought grimly. The rapid change in direction hadn’t done a thing for the ship’s motion, either; Destiny was corkscrewing more violently than ever as the waves rolled in now from broad on her larboard quarter, and the pumps were clanking for five minutes every hour as the ship labored. The intake didn’t concern him particularly — every ship’s seams leaked a little as her limber hull worked and flexed in weather like this, and some water always found its way in through gun ports and hatches, however tightly they were sealed — but the wild vista of the storm-threshed night’s spray and foam was even more confused and bewildering than it had been before.

          And unless he missed his guess, his ship’s bowsprit was now pointed directly at Garfish Bank.

          We’re not going to get far enough to the east no matter what we do, he thought grimly. That only leaves west. Of course, there are problems with that, too, aren’t there?

          He considered it for a moment more, looking at the sails, considering the sea state and the strength of the howling wind, and made his decision.

          “Call the hands, Master Symkee! We’ll put her on the larboard tack, if you please!”

* * * * * * * * * *

          Sir Dunkyn Yairley stood gazing into the dark and found himself wishing the earlier, continuous displays of lightning hadn’t decided to take themselves elsewhere. He could see very little, although with the amount and density of the wind driven spray, it probably wouldn’t have mattered if he’d had better light, he admitted. But what he couldn’t see, he could still feel, and he laid one hand on Destiny‘s bulwark, closed his eyes, and concentrated on the shock-like impacts of the towering waves.

          Timing, a small corner of his brain thought distantly. It’s always a matter of timing.

          He was unaware of the white-faced, nauseated twelve-year-old midshipman who stood watching his closed eyes and thoughtful expression with something very like awe. And he was only distantly aware of the seamen crouching ready at the staysails’ tacks and sheets in the lee of the bulwarks and hammock nettings, taking what shelter they could while they kept their eyes fixed on their officers. What he needed to accomplish was a straightforward maneuver, but under these conditions of wind and weather even a small error could lead to disaster.

          The waves rolled in, and he felt their rhythm settling into his own flesh and sinew. The moment would come, he thought. It would come and —

          “Starboard your helm!” he heard himself bark. His own order came almost as a surprise, the product of instinct and subliminal timing at least as much as of conscious thought. “Lay her on the larboard tack — as close to south-by-west as you can!”

          “Aye, aye, Sir!”