How Firm A Foundation – Snippet 15

          “Thank you, Master Zhones,” Yairley said gravely. “In that case, I suppose we should make sail, don’t you?”

          “Uh, yes, Sir. I mean, aye, aye, Sir!”

          “Very good, Master Zhones.” Yairley smiled. “Go to your station, then.”

          “Aye, aye, Sir!”

The midshipman saluted again and dashed away, and Yairley glanced one more time around his command, mentally double checking every detail.

The topgallant masts and topmasts were housed, but the topsail yards had been gotten back up to work on the topmast caps, and the topsails and foresails’ gaskets had been stripped off and replaced with lengths of spun yarn so that they could be set instantly. The fore- and mainyards had been braced up for the larboard tack, and the spring Aplyn-Ahrmahk and Mahlyk had managed to make fast to the larboard anchor cable had been led in through an after gunport and made fast. Every eye was on the quarterdeck, and Yairley stepped slowly and calmly to his place by the wheel.

He looked back at his watching men. They could all very easily die in the next few minutes. If the ship took the ground in something as rocky as Scrabble Sound in this kind of sea, she was almost certain to break up, and the chances of making it to shore would be poor, at best. Yet as he surveyed all of those watching faces, he saw no doubt. Anxiety, yes. Even fear, here and there, but not doubt. They trusted him, and he drew a deep breath.

“Stand by the cables!”

Tymythy Kwayle, with a gleaming, broad-headed ax in hand, stood by the riding bitts where the sheet anchor cable crossed them. Boatswain Symmyns himself stood by the larboard cable with an identical ax, both of them waiting for the order to cut the hawsers. If everything went according to plan, the moment the anchor cables were cut, the spring attached to the larboard cable would become her new anchor cable, pulling her stern, rather than her bow around into the wind. With her yards already braced, the instant the wind came two points forward of the beam she could cut the spring, as well, and make sail close-hauled on the larboard tack, which would put her roughly on a course of south-southeast. She ought to be able to hold that heading clean back out of Scrabble Sound the way she’d come, if only the wind held steady. Or, for that matter, if it chose to back still further east towards the north. Of course, if it decided to veer to the west, instead . . . .

Stop that, he told himself absently. The wind isn’t really trying to kill you, Dunkyn, and you know it.

“Stand by to make sail! Lay aloft, topmen!”

The topmen hurried aloft, and he let them get settled into place. Then —

“Man halliards and sheets! Man braces!”

Everything was ready, and he squared his shoulders.

“Cut the cables!”

The axes flashed. It took more than one blow to sever a cable six inches in diameter, but Kwayle and Symmyns were both powerfully muscled and only too well aware of the stakes this day. They managed it in no more than two or three blows each, and the freed hawsers went whipping out of the hawseholes like angry serpents at virtually the same moment.

Destiny fell off the wind almost instantly, leaning over to starboard as her stern came round to larboard. It was working, and —

Then the spring parted.

Yairley felt the twanging shock as the line snapped, simply overpowered by the force of the sea striking the ship. She hadn’t turned remotely far enough yet, and the sea took her, driving her towards the rocky beach waiting to devour her. For a moment, just an instant, Yairley’s brain froze. He felt his ship rolling madly, starting to drive stern-first towards destruction, and knew there was nothing he could do about it.

Yet even as that realization hammered through him, he heard someone else snapping orders in a preposterously level voice which sounded remarkably like his own.

“Let fall fore topsail and course! Up fore topmast staysail!”

The crewmen who’d realized just as well as their captain that their ship was about to die didn’t even hesitate as the bone-deep discipline of the Imperial Charisian Navy’s ruthless drills and training took them by the throat, instead. They simply obeyed, and the fore topsail, course, and topmast staysail fell, flapping and thundering on the wind.

“Sheet home! Weather braces haul! Back topsail and course!”

That was the critical moment, Yairley realized later. His entire ship’s company had been anticipating the order to haul taut the lee braces, trimming the yards around to take the wind as the ship turned. That was what they’d been focused on, but now he was backing the sails; trimming them to take the wind from directly ahead, instead. Any hesitation, any confusion in the wake of the unexpected change in orders, would have been fatal, but Destiny‘s crew never faltered.

The yards shifted, the sails pressed back against the mast, and Destiny began moving through the water — not forwards, but astern — while the sudden pressure drove her head still further round to starboard.

Destiny backed around on her heel — slowly, clumsily canvas volleying and thundering, spray everywhere, the deck lurching underfoot. She wallowed drunkenly from side to side, but she was moving astern even as she drifted rapidly towards the beach. Sir Dunkyn Yairley had imposed his will upon his ship, and he stared up at the masthead weathervane, waiting, praying his improvised rudder hadn’t been fouled, judging his moment.

And then —

“Let fall the mizzen topsail!” he shouted the moment the wind came abaft the starboard beam at last. “Starboard your helm! Off forward braces! Off fore topmast staysail sheets! Lee braces haul! Brace up! Shift the fore topmast staysail! Let fall main topsail and main course! Sheet home! Main topsail and course braces haul!”

The orders came with metronome precision, exactly as if he’d practiced this exact maneuver a hundred times before, drilled his crew in it daily. The mizzen topsail filled immediately, arresting the ship’s sternward movement, and the forward square sails and fore topmast staysail were trimmed round. Then the main topsail and main course blossomed, as well, and suddenly Destiny was moving steadily, confidently, surging through the confused seas on the larboard tack with torrents of spray bursting above her bow. As she gathered way, the floating tubs of her improvised rudder settled back into their designed positions, and she answered the helm with steadily increasing obedience.

Done it, lads!” someone shouted. “Three cheers for the Captain!”

HMS Destiny was a warship of the Imperial Charisian Navy, and the ICN had standards of discipline and professionalism other navies could only envy. Discipline and professionalism which, for just an instant, vanished into wild, braying cheers and whistles as their ship forged towards safety.

Sir Dunkyn Yairley rounded on his ship’s company, his expression thunderous, but he found himself face-to-face with a broadly grinning first lieutenant and an ensign who was capering on deck and snapping the fingers of both hands.

“And what sort of an example is this, Master Lathyk?! Master Aplyn-Ahrmahk?!” the captain barked.

“Not a very good one, I’m afraid, Sir,” Lathyk replied. “And I beg your pardon for it. I’ll sort the men out shortly, too, Sir, I promise. But for now, let them cheer, Sir! They deserve it. By God, they deserve it!”

He met Yairley’s eyes steadily, and the captain felt his immediate ire ease just a bit as the realization of what they’d just accomplished began to sink into him, as well.

“I had the quartermaster of the watch time it, Sir,” Aplyn-Ahrmahk said, and Yairley looked at him. The ensign had stopped capering about like a demented monkey lizard, but he was still grinning like a lunatic.

“Three minutes!” the young man said. “Three minutes — that’s how long it took you, Sir!”

Aplyn-Ahrmahk’s eyes gleamed with admiration, and Yairley gazed back at him for a moment, then, almost against his will, he laughed.

“Three minutes you say, Master Aplyn-Ahrmahk?” He shook his head. “I fear you’re wrong about that. I assure you from my own personal experience that it took at least three hours.”