“Sir? Sir?” He felt a stinging slap. He smelled smoke, gunpowder, blood.
“Sir, it’s quite important.” As he blinked, the unfocused world resolved into the concerned face of one of the sailors. Henkins. Yes, that was his name, Henkins. Gunner’s mate. Good man, solid sailor.
“I’m all right. Just a thump.” He stood up on wobbly legs, and gingerly touched his head. His fingers came away with blood on them. The blood was sticky. Not fresh, then, not still bleeding.
“Right you are sir, just a gash. And you know them headers always do bleed more than they ought. Right dramatic they are sir.” Henkins kept a steadying hand on Startop’s elbow. Startop brushed his coat-front, habitually straightening any wrinkles in the high-collared blue uniform tunic. A long smear of blood was left on the gold braid and yellow trim of the turnback. Awkwardly, he wiped his hand on his broadcloth breeches. As he started to straighten his sweat-matted neckcloth, Henkins spoke. “No time for that sir, you’re needed on the quarterdeck directly.”
Startop started to wend his way through the gundeck, through roiling clouds of gunpowder smoke and knots of sailors manfully heaving at cannons to drag them back to the firing ports. “Has the captain passed the word for me?” He wondered what the captain might need in the midst of a furious engagement with the Anterme First Rate.
Henkins stepped carefully over the body of the 3rd lieutenant, Passel, who had command of the gundeck. His right arm and part of his torso were torn to shreds by huge wooden splinters, some still protruding from his ruined ribcage. “In a manner of speaking, Sir.”
“Don’t be coy, Henkins. You there, don’t just stand there. You two, move over to gun six, and you start pulling the casualties out of the way.” Two men and a woman were standing, peering curiously at a 24 pounder that had been knocked off its carriage. It would take a team of ten sailors hours and many pulleys to put the heavy gun to right; they were needed elsewhere.
“Well, begging your pardon sir, it’s not really my place to say.”
“Very well, Henkins. Find the 4th lieutenant and tell him that guns five, four and three are out of action. He’ll move the crews around. I’ll be on the quarterdeck.”
“Begging your pardon sir, but Miss Tusswell is dead.”
“Mr. Kilney, then.” Startop stumbled, his head still swimming. He steadied himself on the capstan.
“Well, then…” but Henkins interrupted him.
“That’s sort of what I been trying to tell you sir. It seems you’re the senior officer left in action, but for the Captain.”
“The devil you say!” Startop took off at a run for the aft gangway. After a few steps, he lurched as a roaring broadside caused the ship to shudder and the deck to fill again with smoke. Gunner’s mates exhorted their gun crews to reload, even as enemy balls crashed through the hull and smashed into cannons, men, and timber. Startop steadied himself and shook the hair out of his face. Bright stars flashed in front of his eyes when he moved his head too quickly. He put a hand on the gash on his head while he mounted the companionway and emerged abovedecks.
Startop had put to sea at 12 when his foster father secured a Midshipman’s berth for him with a captain in His Majesty’s Navy. He had grown from boy to man aboard men of war, and had the good fortune to serve with several aggressive, fighting captains. He had seen action from waylaying pirates in customs cutters, to full on naval battles, but nothing in that ten years had prepared him for the ruin that greeted him on the quarterdeck. Where the wheel house once stood was nothing but a pile of flinders. Scattered all around like discarded rag dolls were the bodies of the ship’s officers, as well as several sailors who had manned the aft carronades. The deck was awash in blood. Captain Grayling sat, propped against the taffrail. His left leg was missing above the knee. A concerned crewmember was turning a belaying pin to tighten a hasty tourniquet fashioned from the captain’s blood-soaked neckcloth. Grayling’s face was white, but he betrayed no pain or concern.
The enemy ship, a massive dreadnought that Anterme captured from March in a disastrous engagement the previous year and re-named L’Etoile de Revolution, loomed within musket range. Marines fired volleys at each other from both vessels, and men in the waist and fore of the ship furiously worked carronades loaded with grape. Spars and lines, tackles and corpses littered the deck as both ship’s crews furiously pounded at each other with the huge, smashing fists of their cannons.
A knot of sailors stood uncertainly near the remains of the wheelhouse, staring at the wildly swinging tiller-crank that had been connected to the conning wheel. As Startop approached, the ship’s master, Bobby O’Shea clambered over a dismounted gun and roared at the hesitant sailors. As he clambered over a fallen spar, he fired his boarding pistol in the direction of the enemy ship, and shoved it into his leather baldric.
“Sea God’s Briny Balls, what are you lackwits doin’, all a-standin’ there with yer mouths open? Clap on to that spar, and rig me a way to control the tiller!” The men and women scattered as the grey-bearded and one-eyed old sailor shoved his way through them. “There you are, sir,” He said, as he caught sight of Startop, mounting the stairs to report to the captain. As he did, he saw the captain’s head slump as he passed out from lack of blood.
Startop glanced around uncomfortably, uncertain of his role. “Mr. O’Shea, what’s happened?”
O’Shea closed the gap between them. He was broad of shoulder and tall. Graying he might have been, but he was still a powerful old hand. He loomed a full head over Startop. “Well sir, Captain Grayling had an idea to board, and moved us into musket range. But just as he gathered the officers and watch commanders, exceptin’ those what were dead, or like yourself, sir; taken for dead, them damn bastards o’er there let loose with some uncommon accurate volley of some sort. Scoured the whole quarterdeck it did, and I never seen its like in forty years at sea.”
“Was it… sorcery? Did they use the…”
“Stones, sir? Well, it weren’t sorcery, or if it were, we might as well all learn to speak Antermish now. Sorcery still don’t work at sea, thank the Spirits. Nor do I think it were fuse-cannons, neither. Take a look sir.” He moved over to the windward side of the quarterdeck where the enemy ship loomed. He pointed down to the waterline. “See where the copper is? Much higher than the waterline, sir. When Marchers built this ship, they meant for her to have a full-on circle of standing stones in the hold, so as the Druids could work their ... whatever it is what Druids do, even at sea. But she’s riding much higher in the water than before, ye can tell because her copper is way above the water line. And when have you known a penny-pinching bastard at the yards to waste copper where it ain’t needed? Seems to me they emptied the hold, and so she’s riding uncommon high.”
“How did they amass that sort of fire on the quarterdeck then, Mr. O’Shea?”
“She’s riding high-like, right sir? So her top gun duck is right level with our gunwale, sir. And her lower is right at our top gundeck, see? So I’m guessing they been practicing coordinating fire from the decktop carronades and the top gun deck. Light two whole broadsides like that full of grape, and won’t be much left standing, if they’re any good. Lousy sailers them ‘Termers may be, but bad shots they are not.” O’shea laughed ruefully.
“So, I think that makes you in charge, Sir.” O’Shea’s look was challenging. Startop had only recently passed for lieutenant, and was the most junior watch commander on the ship. As Ship’s Master, O’Shea was the most senior Warrant Officer, and had born that responsibility for many years. “I’m thinkin’ with so many dead and so few guns a-workin’, and us all under the weather gauge, might be time to think about striking.”
“I’ll be damned if I surrender my captain’s ship, Mr. O’Shea. Get me our steering back and we’ll see what we can do.” Another broadside erupted from the enemy ship, and the air filled with smoke, splinters and screams. Startop heard the whistling of chain-shot rather than grape. The enemy was trying to bring down their spars and sails, render the ship helpless so they could board and capture it at her leisure. Miraculously a few lines parted, but none of the yardarms or sails, furled for action, came down. A block struck the deck with a thump not too far from O’Shea and Startop.
Startop saw the dubious look in O’Shea’s eye, and knew that taking orders from a man 30 years younger than he, and newly commissioned didn’t sit well with the veteran. Startop squashed his desire to flee the murderous fire from the enemy ship, even the hint of cowardice or hesitation would be the end of any sort of discipline or authority. As it was, O’Shea’s hand rested a little less lightly on the basket of the cutlass hanging at his hip. “How long for steering, Mr. O’Shea?”
A moment passed. A wave boomed between the two hulls of the ships, and a spray of white foam fountained up above the quarterdeck. O’Shea took his hand off the hilt of the cutlass, and rubbed his cheek, just under his eye-patch with the back of his hand. He nodded. “I’ll have it for you directly. With your permission sir?” Without waiting for a reply, he moved across the rolling deck to the men struggling with the tiller. Startop allowed himself a sigh of relief before calling to one of the midshipmen, a youth of fourteen years, struggling manfully to reload a musket taller than himself.
“Mr. Canterly, pass the word for Miss Dunheaving on the gundeck, with my compliments. If she should be dead, please extend my compliments to whomever is most senior. Then bring the surgeon, if you please.”
“Aye aye, sir.”
Startop strode over to the captain’s side, and knelt next to him. “Sir? Sir? Captain Grayling?”
Grayling’s eyelids fluttered, but he didn’t respond. The crewman kneeling next to him bobbed his head nervously. “Begging your pardon sir, but it seems the captain is unconscious.”
Startop stared at the man. “So I see. Get two more men and bring him belowdecks to his quarters. When the surgeon presents himself, see that he tends to the captain.”
“Aye aye, sir; two more men, captain to his quarters, surgeon to tend to him.” The sailor stood up and disappeared into the clouds of gunsmoke. Shortly after, the midshipman he had dispatched earlier returned with Sharron Dunheaving close on his heels. She was a sturdy woman with coarse brown hair and a bright red face from long exposure to the sun, and just as long and far more enthusiastic exposure to rum. Her uniform coat was nearly black with powderburns, and there was blood spattered all over her white trousers.
“You passed the word for me, Lieutenant?”
“Yes, Miss Dunheaving. How many guns are firing on upper and lower gun decks??”
“Sir, as of a few minutes ago, there are twenty of the 24-pounders firing on the lower deck, of which six face the enemy. The upper deck has twenty six of the 12-pound carronades working, of which 11 face the enemy.”
Startop winced. The Glorious had taken a severe thrashing. “Sufficient crews to work the guns?”
“Aye sir. In fact, we’re moving the crews around now, the guns still mounted will have an extra gunner or two at each. We’ve lost two gun captains on both decks, sir, but with your permission, I’ve appointed some steady crew to take their place.”
“Well done. Miss Dunheaving, after this volley, have each crew load powder only, with a double charge, second charge wet. Wait to fire broadsides, and fire both sides of the ship. Then repeat, and then resume individual fire.”
“Sir, the leeward guns are loaded with shot.”
“Fire the shot first, then reload with the double powder for the second broadside. I want both broadsides in three minutes. Can you do it?”
Dunheaving scratched her hair. “Sir, we can. We will. But Sir, the wet powder will…”
“Make a prodigious amount of smoke, but not much of a bang. Yes, that’s my plan exactly. You’re buying us a chance to maneuver.”
“Aye aye sir, two broadsides, double powder, second charge wet; clear the guns to leeward on first broadside.”
“Go!” But he barked the order to her back, she had already snapped a quick salute and dashed for the companionway that lead belowdecks. He walked back over to the larboard rail and observed the enemy ship; once the pride of the March fleet, captured by Anterme and refitted the year before. He noticed that the distance between the two ships had shrunk from musket range to pistol range.
“Mr. O’Shea, it appears the enemy are preparing to close and board.” As he spoke the ragged fire belowdecks sputtered out as gun crews got the message to hold and fire together.
“Aye Sir, though it may not be their choosin’ exactly.”
“I noticed they’re making a lot of leeway, riding so high. Keel ain’t answering like it ought tae. Like as not they’re just drifting into us.”
“Mr. O’Shea, give me foresails and foretopsails. We need to put some way on.” Putting on sail while under fire was a risk, but it was a risk that had to be borne.
“Aye aye, fores and foretops.”
“And no one into the tops until our next broadside.”
Startop turned to the midshipman he had sent below before. “Pass the word for Major Twilling. With my compliments, please ask him to gather his marines in the waist and fore.”
“Aye aye sir, your compliments to Major Twilling, and his marines to waist and fore.” He dashed off.
The men struggling with the tiller had lashed it to fallen spar, its splintered end protruding like an open wound. They were still rigging lines from either end to steady it against the rails to either side. Startop nodded his approval. He heard Bobby O’Shea corralling hands to get up into the tops by shouting at them in his usual cannon-like booming; his hollering was drowned out by a roaring broadside from below. The reports were far louder than the shots that had been blasting forth for the past hour – and long stabs of flame gouted out so far that it singed the gilt-work on the enemy ship.
Huge billows of dark smoke roiled out from below like drunks staggering out of a tavern. The entire deck, already smoky enough to obscure the foremast from the quarterdeck, was plunged into choking darkness. Another crashing broadside sounded from below, this time from the starboard side, away from the enemy. The larboard side second gundeck fired its broadside a full minute late; a lack of fire discipline that Startop made a mental note of to deal with later. If he could, if there was a later. The long tongues of flame hung in the air long enough that even after Startop blinked he saw red lights hanging in the air. For a moment he thought of Imogen, at home, her red hair swinging over a velveteen gown as she danced lightly and with a smile full of mischief at the country ball where they’d met.
He cleared his head of woolgathering. He heard the rustle and snap as sails sheeted home from the fore, O’Shea hard at work grabbing hands from the rails and their muskets to haul on lines and tighten the draw until a series of crackles and a boom testified to the sail filling with wind. Out of the smoke and darkness, Startop saw a redcoat emerge, and the sweating face of Major Twilling. His cheeks were black with powder, and his white wig a disreputable gray. His glance around the quarterdeck, and the singular lack of any officer other than Startop were enough to inform of the situation, and he snapped a salute. “Sir!”
“Major, men and women will be in the tops working prodigious fast to do something tricky, while we’re subjected to a stern raking. Two things may save them; first this cloud of smoke we’ve ginned up, though we’ll sail out of it presently – and secondly, you and your marines putting up enough fire to keep some heads down on the enemy decks. They may collide with us, in which case your duty is clear – but if they don’t your rate of fire is more important than accuracy. Much depends on this.”
“Begging your pardon, Lieutenant,” and he stressed Startop’s rank, “but we’ve already got a bit of a situation. Some of the landsmen we pressed last Spring have decided we’re lost anyway, and broken into the liquor locker. Normally I’d horse-whip them and be done with it, but some of the senior hands have taken a look at the rocks and reefs ahead, and joined them. Discipline is … tenuous at the moment, sir, and I fear what might happen if all of the marines are pulled from their posts amongst the crew.”
“Mutiny? Now?” Startop cut himself off before giving in to weakness and giving any sign of fear or hesitation. “I’ll see to the mutineers. Post your marines on the waist. When we come about suddenly, hurry to the quarterdeck and begin firing. The enemy will be immediately behind us. Understood?”
“So be it, and whatever happens, it be upon you!”
“Major. I need hardly be reminded that this is all upon me. I have a plan. I require your willing and enthusiastic support.”
Shamed, Twilling saluted again. “Of course, sir. Of course.” He did an about face; impressive on a lurching deck, and disappeared into the smoke again. Filling the hole in the cloud that hung in the place of his departure, Bobby O’Shea reappeared, accompanied by the midshipman on messenger duty.
“We’ve got some way under us sir, though when we tack, as we must, we’re headed straight for those shoals. I think I take your plan though, if I read you correctly.”
“If you mean I intend to club-haul us and escape that lee shore, then yes, that is my plan. However, we’re going to wear, not tack.”
O’Shea scratched his beard as another broadside thundered from the Anterme ship. The whistling of chain shot passed overhead. They heard shouts and lines snapping from the fore, but the majority of the shot went over their heads at the quarterdeck; the Anterme gunners misjudged, or were unaware The Vainglorious was under way. “Assuming it works, what then?”
Startop was caught short. “I’ll think of something.”
O’Shea laughed heartily. “Oh, that you will, I don’t doubt it, Captain.”
“Just a matter of time, sir.” O’Shea either blinked or winked, it was impossible to tell with a one-eyed man. He put his weight on one of the cables holding the improvised tiller in place, and it held.
“In the mean time, I’ve a mutiny to put down, which, coincidentally, is where I’m going to get the hands to let out the best bower. Keep us under way, the more sail you think we can put on without a mast being carried by the board, the better. I trust your judgement and experience on this one.”
“Aye, and thank’ee. But ye might trust this as well, Sir.” O’Shea handed him a heavy pistol, freshly loaded. “For mutineers, and all. Works better than wit, whisky or the whip.”
Startop checked the priming on the pistol before lowering the hammer over the pan, and stuffing it in the red sash around his blue officer’s coat. He pulled his saber from its scabbard; a business-like weapon without the gilt and decoration of the dress weapon most officers wore. He rounded the edge of the coaming over the stairs down to the gun decks so quickly he nearly vaulted them, and surprised a sailor emerging from below. He took the stairs two at a stride, with no time to lose. At the second gun-deck he hustled aft, past the guncrews working their weapons furiously. The smoke above was thick, but here it was impenetrable; even the sound of the cannons was muffled by the choking, roiling cloud. He felt the slickness of blood beneath his boots, and nearly fell to a knee, his dizziness of earlier returning in a wave. He stopped, hand on a bulkhead for a moment, standing next to the wreckage of a dismounted cannon. An ugly splintered hole was torn through one corner of the firing port where the enemy ball had blasted through. Two gunners, a man and a woman, were crushed beneath the two ton cannon where it had flipped back when struck. Other sailors had lashed it in place where it was to prevent it from rolling around the deck and injuring anyone else; but for a mad moment it looked to Startop like the whole rig, cannon, cables and all were to hold down the two dead gunners.
Aft of the last 24-pounder, Startop felt his way along the bulkhead, past the pegs where temporary canvas walls could be put up to separate warrant-officer’s quarters when the deck wasn’t cleared for battle. Tables and cots were folded up and lashed to the bulkhead to keep them out of the way. The smoke thinned a bit, and Startop could hear raucous voices from ahead. As he moved closer, dim figures resolved into a knot of sailors gathered around the door of the liquor locker. Several were slumped against the bulkhead, already drunk insensible. The bung on a barrel of rum had been sprung, and rum gurgled out in great gulps. The deck was slick with it, and mixed with the blood to run down into the scuppers in a swirling mass that stank of sugar and copper. One sailor was catching the spilling rum in a wooden powder scoop, used to pour the priming charge into a cannon’s breach and pouring it down her throat in mouthfuls that ran all over her rum-sodden shirt. Two other sailors were leaning on each other for support as they passed a bottle of the Captain’s best brandy back and forth. They unconsciously straightened up as they caught site of Startop approach, but then their shoulders tightened and they scowled.
“Come to join us, then, sir?” said a hulking landsman, rocking unsteadily on his feet. “An extra tot before we’re taken, right?”
“No. Make your way to the cable-tier, and make ready to set the anchor when you’re given the word. You, Starcke, isn’t it?” he gestured to a slight woman, with a bottle of wine cradled to her chest like a child. “Come with me above and carry the word to the cable tiers.” Starcke had long been in the service, and her sullen silence spoke volumes about the break in discipline.
Startop stared. The hands were awkwardly silent. The large man finally spoke, in a low tone, nearly a whisper. “No, sir. No sense in that sir. We’ll have our tot, plus what we’ll be owed for the next ten years in an Anterme prison. Best if you join us or move on, sir.” He glowered at Startop beneath beetled brows.
Startop pulled the pistol from his sash, and shot the man in the belly. The man fell over and wrapped himself around the wound, mewling piteously. “It is regrettable that this man attempted to incite mutiny, as mutiny is punishable by death. It is fortunate that his incitement failed, and no more need be made of it. Now, the rest of you – light along to the cable tier, and wait for word to drop the best bower.” The felled mutineer writhed at Startop’s feet. Startop skewered his throat with his saber. The rest of the hands stared in shocked silence; there was a lull in the firing of cannons and screams of sailors that made the mutineer’s dying gasp seem deafening.
“Now!” barked Startop. The hands scrambled into action. Startop jerked his saber into a defensive position, thinking he was about to be swarmed by them, but they moved past him, keeping as wide a berth by pressing their backs to the bulkheads to keep their eyes on him as they passed. One sailor lurched particularly unsteadily, seeming to hesitate. Startop lowered his saber and said, “As fast as you may.” The drunken sailor staggered past and into the smoke.
Startop made his way slowly back to the main ladder, followed by the woman, Starcke. As he reached it, the midshipman who had been running messages stumbled down and nearly ran into him. He drew himself up straight and said, “Captain sends you his compliments, sir, and begs for your presence in his cabin directly.”
Startop nodded. “Aye, the Captain’s cabin directly.” The midshipman turned around and preceded Startop by a few steps. Startop slowed to let the boy gain even more ground. When enough distance was between them that the smoke obscured by the boy’s back, Startop stopped and worked hard to swallow down bile at the back of his throat. He clutched his stomach for a moment, sick with the memory of the sight of the mutineer’s eyes as he’d killed him, murdered him, with his saber. A sailor, no matter how cowardly, deserved the honor of a fair trial, not summary judgment in a smoky gundeck, and death at his officer’s hands. Still, there was no time for recriminations now, no time. No time even to check on the Captain, but if he were conscious, then Startop was bound to obey him, no matter how pressing the circumstances.
He made his way up one deck, and worked his way aft, nearly directly above the liquor locker, where the great cabin took up the whole stern of the ship. The ornately carved door was open and banging open and shut with each roll of the ship. Inside, Startop found the ship’s surgeon, a yellow-toothed barber called Doring, strapping the captain down on a table made of several sea-chests pushed together and covered in canvas. The captain’s face was white, and his eyelids fluttering, but he was conscious.
The captain raised himself up on his elbows. “There you are Startop. Bastards have had my legs off.” He said with as much of a bored drawl that he could muster.
“So they have, sir.”
“Bloody inconvenient there’s druids about. Never the practical kind when you need one, is there?”
“Anyway Startop, this murderous brute says he nees to make clean stumps immediately, or I’m done for, so I’m afraid I’m going to have to leave you to manage things.” He slumped back onto the makeshift surgical table, and groaned when his legs moved under the straps. “Do try not to get us captured. Bloody Anterme doctors are entirely disreputable.”
“Aye aye, sir. No sailors or officers of March to be captured.”
“That’s a good lad. Mind the shoals.” He passed out again, his last words trailing off. The surgeon took a firm grip on one of the captain’s stumps, and made ready with a scalpel. A bonesaw was laid out on the table nearby. His smock was already coated in blood, as if someone had thrown a bucket full of it on him by surprise. Startop hurried out before Doring began cutting, and wished again the ship had a proper doctor or druid, instead of a common surgeon. Behind him, Starcke stood in the doorway, eyes wide.
“Will the captain die, sir?” she asked.
“You heard him Starcke, he doesn’t want to be captured. Why would the captain be worried if he were to be captured or not, if he had died? It’s simply not on his schedule, and you know how particular he is about keeping an exact schedule.” Startop brushed past her and climbed back up onto the quarterdeck as fast he could. The smoke was still thick, and cannon-fire still boomed back and forth between the ships. Evidently Dunheaving, the gunner, had understood Startop’s intent, because even though she hadn’t been given orders, she’d kept the smoke screen thick with occasional gouts from below. Startop made a mental note to commend her.
Startop rushed to the leeward side of the ship, ducking under the lines of the makeshift tiller to do so. A knot of marines were poised nearby, down in the waist; even through the smoke he could make out their bright red coats. As he peered over the side to try and make out shoals and shore, he was joined by O’Shea.
“Cutting it close.” Said the old sailor.
“Better than surrender.”
“If it works.”
“If it works. If not, I’ll have grounded one of his majesty’s 3rd rate ships in enemy territory.” Startop didn’t bother mentioning that the Vainglorious had no business being in the fight in the first place. A chance encounter with the L’Etoile de Revolution had been highly unlikely; but at 74 guns Vainglorious was too big to honorably decline battle, and too light to hold her own. “In either case, are we ready?”
“Hands in the tops, ready to wear, as mad as that is. If your mutineers are ready to drop the anchor, we’re as set as we’re going to get. Might want a bit more way on us though, frankly.”
Startop furiously calculated distances, speeds, leeway, wind direction, all in his head. “I don’t think so, I think if we do we’ll come about right onto that reef. I’d rather take a raking a bit longer than risk running aground.”
O’Shea nodded. “Truth be told sir, with one eye I can’t judge distances particular well. If ye say so, than ye’d know better’n I.”
“Very well. Starcke! Pass the word to drop the anchor. Mr. O’Shea, prepare to wear the ship.”
O’Shea hustled forward to make himself heard by the hands up in the tops, a challenging prospect under the best of circumstances, and especially difficult in the midst of a raging, hardfought engagement.
“Major Twilling, if you’d care to take your men to the taffrail and commence firing, I’d be most obliged.” He called to the marine major, standing intently nearby. Orders were barked, and the marines rushed to the stern. The first rank knelt behind the cover of the taffrail, the second standing close enough behind them to touch their shoulders. Their muskets rattled in well-trained cascades of volley fire, by half-company. The ship gave a huge shudder and lurch as the leeward anchor was let out, and the massive cables bit into the hawse-holes and pulled as taught as iron. The ship lurched even stronger, so powerfully it seemed the bottom would come off when the anchor bit into the sea-bottom, dragged, and finally held. Many of the hands lost their footing when the ship careened crazily forward – a few fell from precarious holds on toe-ropes up in the tops. The jarring shook loose blocks that had been shot free by the chainshot that had savaged the sails and rigging.
Startop breathed again, without realizing he’d been holding his breath when he heard the crack of canvas filling with wind, and the creak of yards and spars coming about. The ship, dragged at the end of a tether held fast by the anchor, swept crazily through the water is it came about. Just as they maneuvered out of the self-generated smokescreen, he looked up and saw one of the most dreaded sites in a fighting sailor’s career; the full broadside of an enemy ship dead astern. Every fiber of his being wanted to flinch, and dive for cover behind the binnacle or in the shadow of the quarterdeck. Gritting his teeth, Startop stood tall as some of the marines broke and sprinted away from their formation at the taffrail. The rest stood firm and raked the enemy’s tops and rails with musket-fire. The Antermers ducked under the sudden volley of fire, and the shots ranging into Vainglorious’ tops slacked off, freeing sailors to maneuver Vainglorious with less danger.
Major Twilling struck at one marine’s backside with the flat of his saber as he began shouting orders to return; but he was cut short when the world ended in a blast of flame, shot, smoke, splintered wood and blood. The Anterme broadside was well-timed; they had held fire when the officers on their quarterdeck had observed that Vainglorious was maneuvering in the bank of smoke. As such, all their cannon still in operation were ready to fire, and did so to stunning effect. The taffrail simply disappeared, churned into a cloud of splinters that mingled with round and grape shot to create a world of nothing but blood, sinew and bone; marines reduced to their constituent parts, their broken bodies flung by an angry god all over the stern of Vainglorious, some reaching as far as the waist. The cannon shot aimed into the belly of the ship smashed up all along her length, passing from stern to stem in a murderous line that first turned the beautiful windows and gingerbread work of the great cabin into an open wound, then dismounted guns, killed gunners, scattered swabs, sponges, worming poles, cables, chains, buckets, slow-match and set shot rolling madly around the deck.
A few of the older hands had felt the turning of the ship, knew what it meant and had thrown themselves prone. These mostly survived, though many pierced with the flying wood splinters that were everywhere. Of the rest, it was impossible to determine who lived and who died; there was too much smoke to see, too much wailing to hear.
Above decks, the sails miraculously held. The enemy had switched from chainshot to ball – and most had passed through the sails, knocking lose spars, destroying the intricate rigging in many places. But none of the masts were carried off. The swivels and deck carronades had stopped firing when the marines had threatened their crews with heavy musket fire; the hands in the tops were least touched of all the crew.
Startop brushed a few shards of wood blasted from the taffrail that had settled on his coat. He tried and failed to restrain a cough from the powder smoke tickling his throat, and had to swallow heavily to stop the coughing from turning into vomit. For a second time the deck was awash with blood. The broken bodies of marines littered the deck, but Major Twilling was still standing. He and his sergeant, a short but stout Lowlander woman were chivvying the surviving marines back into a formation, dragging the dead and wounded behind the firing line, and resuming sporadic fire at the enemy ship. Startop heard O’Shea ordering hands at the fore to cut away the line to the anchor; weighing it in at the capstan was out of the question. The ship lurched forward as the cable parted and the anchor fell away.
A few more shots erupted from the enemy ship, but only from her aft-most guns. Vainglorious had fallen astern of L’Etoile, and only a few guns could be brought to bear. Similarly, out of the wreckage of Vainglorious’ gun deck, a few crews managed shots from the guns closes to the starboard bow as the ship wore around. Damage and casualties sharply limited the possible reprisal anyway, but the small volley mostly splashed short of the Anterme ship, with only a few crashing into her hull.
Bobby O’Shea appeared at Startop’s side. The side of his head was covered in blood, and it matted his beard and dripped onto his chest.
“Are you injured, Mr. O’Shea?”
“No sir, this be what’s left o’ Miss Starcke.”
“Very good. Well no, not very good but…”
“I take yer meanin’ lad. Sir.” O’Shea clapped his hand on Startop’s shoulder. “It weren’t half as bad as it might have been, but the butcher’s bill is steep. Still, we have way and steerage, and we’re clear o’ that lee shore.”
“Aye, and not under L’Etoile’s guns, either.” Startop opened his glass and raised it to his eye, spotting the Anterme ship just starting to try and tack. They hadn’t been ready to come about, and were scurrying to make up lost time. If they maintained their course they would steer clear of the shoals and have enough sea-room to be free of the perils of the lee shore; but with the exigency of maneuver in battle they put themselves in danger. Their tack came close to a shoal that lay between them and the shore.
“Let’s get as much way under as we might, Mr. O’Shea, I believe I’ve thought of something.”
“Crossing their ‘T’ as they tack, and paying them back in kind?”
“Just so. Main and tops to the fore and mainmast, if you please, and tops to the mid; that should answer. Send a hand to check on the captain, too, as directly as you might.”
“Aye aye, sir – main and tops, tops to the mid, and check on the captain.” O’Shea moved off, lifting his speaking-trumpet to his lips and shouting orders up to the surviving hands in the tops.
“Major Twilling, your condition?”
“Half a company remaining, sir.”
Startop gasped. “Stones and Sky!”
Twilling narrowed his eyes but said nothing further. His officer’s cockade and wig were missing, and the stubble of his shaved head had gobbets of flesh stuck to it.
“You may return to your action stations, Major.”
“Aye aye, sir.” Twilling saluted and turned to reorganize his marines. Startop grabbed one of the hands who was helping carry the wounded off the quarterdeck.
“Go find the carpenter and pass him my regards, and that he send a gang to inspect the hull for shot-holes below the waterline. Then yourself go to the well and take a reading.”
“Aye, sir; carpenter to inspect hull, me to take reading at the well.” The crewman moved off at a weary hustle, a foot-dragging trot that bespoke both his fatigue and readiness to do his duty.
“Sir, look, they’re caught in chains!”
(To be continued)