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A Mighty Fortress: Chapter Fifteen

       Last updated: Wednesday, March 10, 2010 07:11 EST



HMS Rakurai, 46
Gorath Bay,
Kingdom of Dohlar,
HMS Devastation, 54,
King’s Harbor,
Helen Island,
Kingdom of Old Charis

    The brisk afternoon wind had a whetted edge as it swept across the dark blue waters, ruffling the surface with two-foot waves. Here and there a crest of white foam broke almost playfully, and the sharp-toothed breeze hummed in the rigging. Gorath Bay was a well sheltered anchorage, and it was always ice-free year round. But the present air temperature was barely above freezing, and it took very little wind to make a man shiver when it came slicing across the vast, treeless plain of the bay.

    The Dohlaran seamen assembled on the deck of HMS Rakurai were certainly doing their share of shivering as they stood waiting for orders.

    “Down topgallant masts!”

    Captain Raisahndo’s voice rang out from the converted merchantman’s quarterdeck in the official preparatory order, and petty officers gave their working parties warning glances. Earl Thirsk had decided to grace Rakurai with his presence this afternoon, and it had been made thoroughly clear to everyone aboard that today would be a very bad day to be less than perfect.

    “Topgallant yardmen in the tops!”

    Feet thudded across the deck as the designated topmen flooded up the ratlines. They swept up them like monkey-lizards, fountaining upward into the rigging, yet the dulcet tones of petty officers gently encouraged them to be still speedier.

    “Aloft topgallant yardmen!”

    The fresh command came almost before they’d finished collecting in the tops and sent them scurrying still higher, swarming up to the level of the topmast cap.

    “Man topgallant and mast ropes!”

    More seamen moved to their stations at deck level, manning the ropes run through leading blocks on deck, then through blocks hooked to one side of each topmast cap and down through bronze sheaves set into the squared off heels of the topgallant masts. Each mast rope then ran up its mast once more, to the other side of the topmast cap and a securing eyebolt. The result was a line rigged through the topgallant mast heel, designed to support the mast’s weight as it slid down from above and controlled by the deck party assigned to each mast. Other hands eased the topmast stays and shrouds, loosening them slightly, and the next command rang out.

    “Haul taut!”

    Tension came on the mast ropes, and the officer in charge of each mast examined his own responsibility critically, then raised his hand to signal readiness.

    “Sway and unfid!”

    Seamen threw still more weight onto the mast ropes, and high above the deck, each topmast rose slightly as the rope rove through its heel lifted it from below. Its heel rose just far enough through the square hole (just barely large enough to allow the heel to move in it) in the topmast trestletrees for a waiting hand to extract the fid — the tapered hardwood pin which normally passed through the heel and rested on the trestletrees to support the topgallant’s weight and lock it in place.

    “Lower away together!”

    The topgallant masts slid smoothly, gracefully down in almost perfect unison as the men on the mast ropes obeyed the command. Breeching lines and heel ropes both guided and restrained the masts, although the anchorage was sheltered enough, even with the brisk breeze, that there was no real danger of the yard going astray.

    The purpose of the exercise wasn’t to bring the masts clear down on deck and stow them, and their downward progress ended when their heels came to a point just above the hounds on their respective lower masts. At the same time the spars came down, the topmen tended to the topgallant rigging. They eased the stays and backstays carefully as the masts descended, then secured it on the topmast caps. If the topgallants had been going to remain struck for any period of time, a capstan bar would have been pushed through the secured stays and lashed into place to help keep things under control. No one bothered with that particular refinement this afternoon, however. There wasn’t much point, since all hands knew they were to enjoy the pleasure of completing the evolution at least three more times before the day was over.

    “Lay down from aloft!”

    The order brought the topmen back down, even as a heavy lashing was passed through the fid hole and secured around the topmast to hold it in place. The ship looked truncated with her topgallant masts and topmasts doubled that way, but the topgallant was securely stowed in a manner which reduced the height of her rigging by almost a third. The result was to reduce wind resistance aloft and to reduce her rigging’s center of gravity, which might well prove the margin between survival and destruction in the teeth of a winter storm.

    The last line was passed, the last lashing secured, and all hands watched tensely as the captain and the admiral surveyed their handiwork. It was a moment of intense stillness, a sort of hushed watchfulness burnished by the sounds of wind and wave, the whistles of wyverns and the cries of gulls. Then Earl Thirsk looked at Raisahndo and nodded gravely.

    No one was foolish enough to cheer at the evidence of the admiral’s satisfaction. Even the pressed men of the ship’s company had been aboard long enough to learn better than that. But there were broad grins here and there, born of combined relief (none of them had wanted to consider how the captain would react if they’d embarrassed him in front of the admiral) and pride, the knowledge that they’d done well. Completing an evolution like this in harbor was child’s play compared to accomplishing it at sea, in the dark, in a pitching, rolling vessel. Most of them knew that — some, the relatively small number of seasoned seamen scattered amongst them, from intensely unpleasant personal experience — but they also knew it was something they were going to have to do eventually. None of them were any more enamored of the notion of sweating for the sake of sweating than the next man, but the majority of them preferred to master the necessary skills here rather than trying to pick them up at the last minute in the face of a potentially life-or-death emergency at sea.

    That was an unusual attitude, in many ways, especially for crews which contained such large percentages of inexperienced landsmen. Sailors who’d been snapped up by the press gangs tended to resent being dragged away from their snug homes ashore — and from wives and children who depended upon them for support. Given the risks of battle, not to mention the vagaries of disease or accident, the odds were little better than even that they would ever see those wives and children again. That was enough to break any husband or father’s heart, but it didn’t even consider the fact that their impressment generally rendered their families destitute overnight. There was no guarantee the ones they loved would manage to survive in their men’s absence, and even if they did, hardship and hunger were all but guaranteed for most of them. Under the circumstances, it was scarcely surprising that, more often than not, pressed men had to be driven to their tasks, frequently with calculated brutality, until they fused into a cohesive ship’s company. Sometimes they never achieved that fusion at all, and even many of those who eventually would find their places simply lacked the experience — so far, at least — to understand why relentless training was important to them, and not simply to their demanding, hectoring officers and hard-fisted petty officers. That wasn’t the sort of attitude which normally evoked cheerful eagerness for swarming up and down masts on an icy cold afternoon when they could have been below decks, out of the cutting wind.

    The attitude of Rakurai’s company was quite different from that, however. In fact, it was different from that which would previously have been seen aboard almost any Dohlaran warship with so many pressed men. Partly that was because this time there’d been relatively little brutality, and that which had been employed had been carefully calculated, fitted to the circumstances which demanded it and administered with ruthless equity. There’d still been at least a few incidents where it had been unnecessary, where a bosun’s mate of the “old school” had resorted to the use of fists or the over enthusiastic employment of his “starter” (a knotted length of rope used to whip “laggards” along), but they’d been remarkably few compared to what would have happened in most other Dohlaran fleets.

    Partly that was because so many of the navy’s “old school” bosun’s mates (and captains, for that matter) had been lost in the disastrous campaign which had ended at Rock Point and Crag Hook. Mostly, though, it was because the fleet’s new commander had explained his position on that particular point, among others, with crystalline clarity. And because it had turned out he’d actually meant it, as well. So far, eleven captains who’d made the mistake of assuming he wasn’t serious about his orders concerning unnecessary punishment or brutality had been relieved in disgrace. Given the fact that two of those captains had been even better born than the earl, and that one of them had enjoyed the patronage of the Duke of Thorast himself, none of his remaining captains were inclined to doubt he’d meant what he said the first time.

    There was another reason, as well, though — one that grew out of acceptance from below even more than out of restraint from above, and one which had won Earl Thirsk a degree of devotion almost unheard of among impressed seamen. No one knew exactly how word of it had gotten out, but it was common knowledge in the fleet that the earl had personally argued that since the fleet was being manned for Mother Church’s service, Mother Church ought to assume responsibility for the well-being of the pressed men’s families. The wage of a common sailor in the Royal Dohlaran Navy wasn’t much, but Mother Church would see to it that the money was paid directly to a man’s family during his absence, if that was his request. More than that, and totally unprecedented, the Church had promised to pay a pension to the widow of any impressed seaman who died on active service and to provide for the support of his minor children, as well.

    All of which helped to explain why there were remarkably few groans of resignation as the captain and the admiral returned to Rakurai’s poop deck and the captain reached for his speaking trumpet yet again.

    “Up topgallant masts!”



    “They’re getting better at that than I’d really like,” Sir Domynyk Staynair, the Baron of Rock Point, observed quietly.

    The one-legged admiral leaned comfortably back in an overstuffed armchair, the wooden peg which had replaced the calf of his right leg resting on a foot stool in front of him. Kraken-oil lamps burned brightly, hanging from the deckhead, and the sleeping bulk of his new flagship was quiet about him as she lay at anchor while he watched the recorded imagery play out before his eyes. The lowered topgallant masts were moving back up into position as smoothly as they’d descended, as if controlled by a single hand, and he shook his head.

    “Agreed,” Merlin Athrawes’ voice replied in his right ear, speaking from his palace bedchamber in Cherayth, the better part of seven thousand miles away. It was just past midnight in King’s Harbor, but the first, very faint traces of an icy winter dawn could be seen out of Merlin’s window. “Of course, it’s all still drill, under pretty much ideal circumstances. And they still aren’t as good at it as our people are.”

    “Maybe not,” Rock Point conceded. “Then again, nobody’s as good at it as our people are, and I’d just as soon keep it that way.” He shook his head again. “Proficiency builds confidence, Merlin, and the last thing we need is for these people to start feeling confident about facing us at sea.” He paused for a moment, head cocked as if in thought, then snorted. “Allow me to correct myself. The next to last thing we need is for them to start feeling confident about their competence. The last thing we need is for them to actually develop that competence. And that, unfortunately, is exactly what Thirsk seems to be doing.”

    “Agreed,” Merlin repeated, this time in something much more like a sigh. “I’ve discovered that, despite myself, I rather admire Thirsk,” he continued. “Still, I’ve also discovered that I can’t quite help wishing he’d encountered a round shot at Crag Hook. For that matter, I can’t help wishing King Rahnyld had gone ahead and had him executed as a scapegoat for Armageddon Reef. It would’ve been grossly unfair, but the man’s entirely too good at his job for my peace of mind.”

    “I suppose it’s inevitable they could turn up at least one competent sailor if they looked long enough and hard enough,” Rock Point agreed sourly.

    “I don’t think all the time he spent on the beach hurt any, either,” Merlin pointed out. Rock Point raised an interrogative eyebrow, and Merlin grimaced. “The man’s got a brain that’s probably at least as good as Ahlfryd’s,” he pointed out, “and he’s got more actual sea experience than almost anyone else the Church can call on. I think it’s pretty obvious he spent the time they left him ashore to rot using that brain and that experience to analyze all the mistakes Maigwair and idiots like Thorast have been making. They were stupid to park him there, and I’m just as glad they did, but the downside is that they gave him plenty of time to think. Now he’s putting the fruits of all that thinking to work.”

    Rock Point made an irate sound of acknowledgment — something midway between a grunt and a growl. Like Merlin and Cayleb, the baron had come to the conclusion that Thirsk was almost certainly Charis’ most dangerous current adversary. As Merlin had just pointed out, the man had a brain, and a dangerously competent one. Worse, he wasn’t a bit afraid of what Merlin called “thinking outside the box.” His insistence that the Church provide for the families of impressed seamen was unheard of, for example. There’d been bitter resistance to the entire notion, and not just from the Church. Quite a few of the Dohlaran Navy’s senior officers had mounted a ferocious attempt to defeat the suggestion. Some of that resistance had been pure reflex in defense of “the way things have always been.” Some of it had stemmed from a fear that the practice would become customary — that the Navy would be expected to assume the same financial responsibilities in the future. But more of it had arisen from simple resentment of the authority and support which both the Duke of Fern and Captain General Maigwair had thrown behind Thirsk. And from Thirsk’s willingness to use that support to smash his way through their sullen resistance. Reformers were seldom beloved, and the degree to which they were resented and loathed was usually in direct proportion to how desperately reform was needed.



    There’s a lesson there, Merlin reflected. Or a damned sharp bit of irony, at any rate, given how unpopular “reformers” like Cayleb Ahrmahk and Maikel Staynair are proving in the Temple just now!

    “You realize,” the baron said after a second or two, “if he actually manages to get their navy reorganized for them, Thorast and the others will toss him to the krakens just as soon as they figure they can possibly get along without him.”

    “Of course they will,” Merlin agreed a trifle sadly. “I think he knows it, too. Which only makes him even more dangerous, from our perspective.”

    “So we’ll just have to do something about him ourselves,” Rock Point said more briskly. “Gwylym’s about ready to sail.”

    “I know.” Merlin frowned. “In a lot of ways, though, I wish you were going, instead.”

    “Gwylym’s just as capable as I am,” Rock Point pointed out. There might have been a touch of stiffness in his tone, and Merlin shook his head quickly.

    “It’s not a matter of capabilities, Domynyk,” he said. “Believe me, no one has more respect for Gwylym than I do! It’s just that I’d rather the fellow in charge of singeing King Rahnyld’s beard had access to the SNARCs. Especially given how competent we’ve just agreed Thirsk is turning out to be.”

    Rock Point nodded in acknowledgment, although the acknowledgment in question was obviously a bit grudging. Still, he really couldn’t argue the point. Admiral Sir Gwylym Manthyr had been Cayleb’s flag captain at the battles of Rock Point, Crag Hook, and Darcos Sound. He was an experienced seaman, possessed of a singular attention to detail and an iron nerve. He was not, however, one of the “inner circle” who had been cleared for the truth about Merlin, which meant he wasn’t going to be examining any “satellite imagery.” Nor, for that matter, would anyone assigned to his staff.

    Unfortunately, Rock Point himself was the only one of Cayleb and Sharleyan’s senior naval officers who was part of the inner circle. Getting some of the others on board was a high priority, but, again, not something which could be rushed. Rock Point himself had argued strongly in favor of adding High Admiral Bryahn Lock Island to the list, and both he and Merlin were confident that the Brethren of Saint Zherneau would approve Lock Island’s admission quite soon. Of course, the question then arose of just who would inform Lock Island. With Cayleb, Sharleyan, and Archbishop Maikel all out of Old Charis, it would be virtually impossible to find the right messenger — somebody with the authority to make Lock Island listen if he didn’t take it well, and somebody he’d trust enough to believe when he did listen. Baron Wave Thunder might serve in a case of dire emergency, but still . . . .

    “I could probably talk Bryahn into sending me, instead of Gwylym,” the baron said after a moment, but his expression was unhappy and his tone was tentative.

    “No.” Merlin shook his head again. “Cayleb and Sharleyan are right about that. We need you right where you are, too. Or, rather, where you’re about to be. And, let’s face it, Dohlar’s a worry, but Tarot’s right next door. And White Ford is no slouch, either.”

    It was Rock Point’s turn to a grimace, but he couldn’t disagree.

    The Imperial Charisian Navy was the largest, most powerful fleet any single Safeholdian realm had ever boasted. It was rising rapidly to a strength of over ninety galleons, and it continued to expand. Unfortunately, it wasn’t going to find itself matched against any other single Safeholdian realm; it was going to face the combined fleets of virtually every mainland realm. Worse, the Church of God Awaiting had poured out staggering sums to subsidize those fleets, although not all of the various kingdoms’ and empires’ building programs were equally advanced. The Temple Lands and the more northern ports of the Harchong Empire were considerably behind the shipyards of Dohlar and the Desnairian Empire, and that situation wasn’t going to improve for the Church any time soon. But the plain, ugly truth was that even with an unlimited budget (which it didn’t have) the Charisian Empire couldn’t possibly have matched the mainland realms’ combined building capacity. Nor was the Charisian supply of manpower unlimited, either. Ninety galleons, each with a crew of roughly five hundred, required forty-five thousand men. So far, the Navy had managed to meet its manpower requirements without resorting to impressment of its own, largely because it had always followed policies similar to the ones Thirsk had forced upon Dohlar and the Church. That was about to change, however, because there were only so many volunteers who could be attracted no matter what the inducement, and the manning situation was only going to get worse as the size of the fleet continued to climb.

    And it was going to have to climb. Assuming the Church completed its current construction programs, it would command a fleet of over three hundred and ninety galleons — better than four times the current Charisian strength. A hundred and fifty of them would be converted merchant ships, but so were a quarter of the Charisian Navy’s galleons. And that didn’t even consider the two hundred-plus galleys the Church had built before it realized just how outclassed galleys had become. They might not be well suited to decisive broadside duels, but they more than doubled the total number of hulls the Church could throw at its opponents, and if they were free to operate while the Church’s galleons neutralized Charis’ galleons . . . .

    The good news was that the ships in question were scattered between five widely separated navies. No single kingdom or empire could match the Charisians’ numbers, although Harchong would come close once it’s winter-delayed construction could be completed. Concentrating those widely dispersed squadrons would be at least as difficult as it had been to concentrate the forces detailed for the Group of Four’s original plans for Old Charis’ destruction. And even after they were concentrated, their companies would be sadly inexperienced compared to the Imperial Navy’s crews.

    Earl Thirsk, at least, obviously recognized that fact. So did Gahvyn Mahrtyn, the Baron of White Ford, King Gorjah of Tarot’s senior admiral. Unfortunately, from the Church’s perspective, they were the only two fleet commanders still available to it who had ever faced the Charisian Navy in battle. The Earl of Black Water, the Corisandian commander at Darcos Sound, had died there, and Gharth Rahlstahn, the Earl of Mahndyr, and Sir Lewk Cohlmyn, the Earl of Sharpfield, who had commanded the Emeraldian and the Chisholmian components of Black Water’s fleet, were now in Charisian service. Even more unfortunately (for the Church), the fact that Thirsk and White Ford had been devastatingly defeated by then-Crown Prince Cayleb had caused their advice to be discounted by almost all of their fellow flag officers.

    That was clearly changing in Thirsk’s case, but neither Harchong, nor the Desnairian Empire, nor the Temple Lands seemed overly inclined to profit by Dohlar’s example. Tarot did, but King Gorjah continued to languish under a cloud of disapproval. It seemed clear that the Group of Four continued to blame Tarot for the disastrous intelligence leak which had permitted King Haarahld of Charis and his son to deduce the Church’s strategy and come up with a counter strategy to defeat it in detail. That was grossly unfair, although with no knowledge of Merlin’s SNARCs, it was understandable enough. Particularly given Charis’ efforts to encourage exactly that reaction.

    As a consequence, none of the Church’s galley fleet had been laid down in Tarotisian shipyards. Following the Group of Four’s belated switched to a galleon-based fleet, Tarot had been admitted to the building program, yet even then the Tarotisian component remained the smallest of all. And White Ford — who was quite possibly an even better combat commander than Thirsk — had been almost totally ignored.

    Under the circumstances, the Church’s numerical advantage was considerably less overwhelming than it might appear. To set against that, however, the Empire of Charis was a very large, very vulnerable target. Charis and Chisholm, in particular, were six thousand miles apart, as the wyvern flew, and it was over two thousand miles from Port Royal, in Chisholm, to Corisande’s Cape Targan. A ship deployed to defend Charis was a minimum of a month from Chisholm under even the most favorable conditions of wind and weather, and it would take almost that long for a ship stationed in Chisholm to reach Manchyr, in Corisande.

    Distances and transit times like that prevented High Admiral Lock Island from concentrating his own forces in a central position. In fact, he’d been forced to station twenty galleons in Chisholm, under Admiral Sharpfield and supported by the Chisholmian Navy’s surviving galleys. Another ten galleons and twenty-five galleys had been stationed in Corisandian waters under Earl Mahndyr, and Lock Island had retained twenty galleons under his own command, covering Rock Shoal Bay and the approaches to Howell Bay and the Sea of Charis.

    That left barely forty galleons for other service, and freeing up even that many had been possible only because the Church’s war fleet was so widely scattered . . . and still so far short of completion. As more of the Church’s galleons became available for service, the various Charisian defensive fleets would have to be strengthened, which would reduce the strength available for other tasks still further.

    Unless something could be done in the meantime to reduce the numbers opposed to them.

    That was supposed to be Manthyr’s and Rock Point’s assignment. Manthyr, with eighteen galleons and six thousand Marines was bound for the Sea of Harchong. More specifically, he was bound for Hardship Bay, on the largely uninhabited Claw Island. There were reasons very few people lived on Claw Island. It wasn’t vey big — barely a a hundred and twelve miles in its longest dimension. It was also little more than two hundred miles south of the equator, and its barren, mostly treeless expanses of rock and sand were about as welcoming as an oven the same size. On the other hand, Hardship Bay offered a good deep-water anchorage, and the small city of Claw Keep would offer his squadron a home port . . . of sorts, at any rate. Even more importantly, it was better than twenty-one thousand sea miles from Tellesberg which put it “barely” five thousand sea miles from Gorath Bay. It also lay off the western coast of South Harchong, however, where a quarter of the Harchong Empire’s galleons were under construction, and it was less than fifteen hundred miles from the mouth of the Gulf of Dohlar.

    The voyage to Claw Island would actually have been slightly shorter if he sailed east, by way of Chisholm, instead of west, past Armageddon Reef and around the southern tip of the continent of Howard, but he’d have both favorable winds and currents going west, especially this time of year. He’d probably average at least fifty or sixty miles more a day on his projected course . . . and it would still take him better than three months to complete the voyage.

    Once he got there, his Marines ought to be more than sufficient to capture Claw Keep and garrison the island, especially since the only reliable source of water on the entire sun-blasted spit were the artesian wells that served Claw Keep itself. That would provide him with a secure base from which to operate against both Dohlar and Harchong. He’d be a long way from home, although he’d be within nine thousand miles of Chisholm, but he’d be well placed to blockade the Gulf of Dohlar and intercept any effort to combine Thirsk’s galleons with the Harchongese contingent building further south around Shipwreck Bay, in the provinces of Queiroz, Kyznetsov, and Selkar. Even if he did nothing but sit there (and Merlin was confident that an officer of Manthyr’s abilities and personality should find all manner of ways to make himself an infuriating pest), it was unlikely the Church — or King Rahnyld or Emperor Waisu, for that matter — would be prepared to tolerate a Charisian presence that close to them.

    His galleons would be substantially outnumbered — by almost four-to-one by Dohlar, alone, assuming the Dohlarans got all of their own warships completed and manned — but the greater experience of his crews and captains would offset much of that disadvantage. And the simple fact that Charis was once again taking the initiative, despite its numerical disadvantage, would have profound implications for the confidence and morale of his opponents.

    And if worse came to worst, he could always load his Marines back aboard his transports and withdraw.

    That’s the idea, at least, Merlin thought. And as a way to throw a spanner into the Church’s plans, it’s got a lot to recommend it. But I’d still feel better with Domynyk in command. Or if we could give Gwylym a com, at least! I hate having that big a chunk of the Navy out at the end of a limb that long when we can’t even talk to its CO.

    Unfortunately, as he himself had just pointed out, they were going to need Rock Point closer to home. He and the remaining twenty galleons currently available to Charis would be moving their base of operations to Hanth Town on Margaret Bay, which would put him across the Tranjyr Passage from the Kingdom of Tarot. His new base would be well placed to assist Lock Island in meeting any threat against Old Charis from East Haven or Desnair. More importantly, however, he’d be in a position to operate directly against Tarot.

    And Sharleyan was right about that, too, Merlin reflected. It’s more important than ever to . . . induce Gorjah to consider joining the Empire voluntarily. Or, failing that, to present him with a somewhat more forceful argument. Neutralizing Tarot would be worthwhile in its own right. Gaining Tarot as a forward base right off the East Haven coast would be even more worthwhile. And getting our hands on the galleons Gorjah’s building for the Church wouldn’t hurt a damned thing, either!

    “I’d like to be able to do a lot of things we can’t do right now,” he said out loud. “Desnair’s starting to worry me, for one thing, and I really wish we could get at Harchong and the Temple Lands yards! But we can’t afford to uncover Old Charis and Chisholm, and that’s just the way it is. If Gwylym can keep Dohlar busy long enough for you and Gray Harbor to convince Gorjah to see the light, it’ll help a lot, though.”

    “Then we’ll just have to see what we can do about that, won’t we, Seijin Merlin?” Rock Point said with a smile. “We’ll just have to see what we can do.”

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