“Cannons boom like a titan stomping the earth. Wood splinters like thunderclaps. Men screaming but you can’t see ’em for the smoke. All you can do is hope Poseidon wants them more.”
Flynn “Skinny” Draskal, sailor, sole survivor of the S.S. Manta at the Three-Mile-Limit incident.
A Study of Mental Anguish in Veterans of Battle by Sir Robert Gafton. Thirteenth day of Feasting, 3315
Soaked. Sodden. Flesh wrinkled. Jake hugged an empty powder keg, rolling to stay afloat. Struggling to keep above the briny water. More buoyant rubble bobbed around him in the strangely calm sea. Teeth chattering, he looked around for any hope. Towers of smoke and mist mixed and swirled around him. The roar of a popping fire met his ears, but the smoke didn’t allow him to see anything other than an orange glow. Blood and soot stained his white shirt. He checked under the red with his fingertips. The skin had not been broken. The blood did not belong to him. Around his neck hung two pistols tied together by a bootlace at the stocks. His powder horn bobbed beside him. It sounded half full when he shook it. Hopefully, the powder was dry inside. His eyes burned from the saltwater as he squinted, trying to pierce the veil of smoke.
Finally, a brief break in the haze revealed a burning ship: a half-sunk frigate with its stern in the air. Engulfed in flame, the hull collapsed, rolling the stern to the side. Lettering ran vertically along the now visible stern end. He craned his head to read it. The S.S. Marion.
How could this be? Sabotage? An attack? Why couldn’t he remember? He wore pistols and powder as if ready for a fight. Perhaps he hit his head. Jake checked his cranium. Nothing out of the ordinary there.
“Hello,” Jake called into the mist. No answer. Again he tried and again, there was no one. Something hairy bumped into Jake’s foot, startling him. The object rose to the surface. A corpse lay face down in the water. Jake reluctantly rolled the dead man over. He gasped loudly and sobbed.
Bromley Grute, or at least his body, gazed skyward. His clothes were torn and he had two gaping shrapnel wounds in his chest. Jake could tell fish had been pecking at it. His eyes were milky from the salty ocean water eating at them.
Jake shook him and called to him between sobs, but his friend was gone. Placing a hand over Brom’s eyes, he gently closed his dead friend’s eyelids. Jake pulled him closer to the floating keg by the collar. They floated for what seemed like hours, away from the wreckage.
Dorsal fins began to circle. Jake had never seen a shark, but he had heard plenty of horrifying stories. Like how they would be attracted to blood or how they hunted in packs like wolves of the sea. How the big ones could bite a man in half, have their fill, then leave him still screaming. “Devil-fish,” the old sailors called them. He measured, visually, the distance from the dorsal fin to the tail of each that passed by. These were big sharks.
He checked the powder in the pan on each pistol; wet. They wouldn’t fire that way for sure. Jake dumped the damp powder into the water and refilled each pan with powder from his horn. He placed one in as dry of a place he had on the wreckage and cocked the other. One of the big sharks opened its giant jaws and bit into Brom’s lifeless body. Thrashing, the shark took almost a whole leg before Jake could take aim.
A thick cloud of blood formed around him. Smaller sharks began nipping at Jake’s toes. He kicked them off. Yelling and screaming, he spun in circles trying to keep the sharks from gripping a chunk of him. Another big one took a bite of Brom but didn’t get away before Jake put a pistol shot in its brain.
“Get away from him,” he yelled desperately. “Get away or I swear I’ll—”
Jake stopped. There were no threats that would work here. He was in their element. What more could he do? The rest of the sharks backed off but only to a short distance. Jake pushed the dead shark toward the wall of circling maneaters.
The water around the massive dead fish boiled as other sharks stripped bloody meat from the gray mass. The sharks ate the entire corpse in minutes.
“Devil fish,” Jake whispered to himself. At that moment, he was the most terrified he had ever been. All the battles he had fought. All the men he had killed, meant nothing. In conventional war, he could see his enemy. He could see mutual fear in his enemies’ eyes. His enemies didn’t want to eat him alive. Jake had never imagined his life ending this way, floating in a frigid ocean, toes bleeding into the water, clutching the remains of his dearest friend. What could he do with one more pistol shot in this vast and deadly ocean?
The sharks began another assault, the smaller ones first this time. Jake did his best to beat them away from Brom with his pistol but there were too many. The feeding frenzy made the water froth a deep crimson. Then the sharks began nipping at Jake again, then biting, then tearing. Jake screamed at the sky as if the gods designed this torture for him. Adrenaline pumping, he hunched over on the barrel and kicked ferociously.
Too many sharks. Another shot would only scare them away for a few moments. The larger fins headed his way. He gritted his teeth and picked up the pistol. Placing the muzzle in his mouth, a tear rolled over the crystallized salt on his cheeks. He let out a final bellow, making the veins in his neck protrude. He pulled the trigger. Click. Jake didn’t have a chance to try again. Saw blade jaws clamped around his legs. Serrated teeth sunk into his flesh and scored his bone. The shark whipped downward, pulling Jake under, into the blood cloud. The air in his chest left him in an underwater scream and water filled his lungs. More biting. More tearing. More blood.
Drums. Lurching awake with a gasp, Jake fell out of his swaying hammock and onto the damp planks under it. Below deck, the Marion buzzed like a kicked beehive. The drums rolled and a call from above pierced through the commotion.
“Beat to quarters!” The command echoed throughout the hull. Out of one nightmare and into another. Officers ordered the gun crews to load the cannons. The marine sergeant called all available muskets and fighters topside. Jake didn’t bother with his shoes. The leather soles slipped on deck anyway. He grabbed his brand-new rifle and climbed the steep steps into the foggy morning air. The gray water was choppy with small, white-capped swells. A large flock of seagulls followed the vessel meaning they were close to land, finally. They had spent weeks at sea.
Brom extracted his ramrod from his rifle as Jake joined him at the port side of the ship. Jake didn’t need to ask what was happening. Brom volunteered the information immediately.
“An enemy privateer, a frigate, was spotted off the port bow. We surprised them in the fog. They saw our colors and immediately beat to quarters. Been back in the fog for a few minutes now.”
The Marion and the enemy vessel were both frigates: light, swift-moving and wieldy warships. On paper, in some admiral’s office, the ships were evenly matched with similar batteries and speed capabilities. Jake knew better and cracked a smile. No frigate could truly match the Mighty Marion. The other captain would probably read the name painted on the stern and withdraw. No seaman in his right mind would do battle with the Marion one-on-one, especially a privateer seeking an easy target with a profitable cargo.
Sailors in wool watch caps and felt coats loaded swivel guns. Two of the swivel gunners had loaded with grapeshot, a deadly anti-personnel load that sent flesh ripping, grape-sized lead pellets onto the enemy deck. The other two loaded with explosive shells. Marines in bright red uniforms lined the gunnels with muskets leveled into the fog. Several marines climbed the shrouds to gain elevated firing positions. More seamen tethered the longboats together and lowered them into the water partially to remove them from the broadside guns’ aim but also to provide rescue to any who found themselves in the drink. They were almost perfectly spaced out in the Marion’s wake.
Officers walked along the deck making small adjustments to the crew’s spacing and offered encouragement in the form of barked orders.
“Check your pans.”
“Make it count.”
“Wait for it.”
Count Varro and Captain Albreight stood stone-faced on the quarterdeck, next to the helmsman. Jake didn’t doubt the captain’s command but he would have liked to see their second ship through the fog. A reassurance, after his unsettling nightmare.
“Where is the Albatross?” Jake asked. The Albatross was a corvette with one gun deck. She carried twenty-four guns in comparison to the Marion’s thirty-eight. The smaller size and sleeker keel allowed the average crew to outmaneuver any other class of fighting vessel. The thin hull, however, could not survive a well-placed broadside bombardment.
Brom shook his head. “Don’t know. I think we lost contact with them in the fog sometime last night.”
The captain held his finger to his mouth then pointed to his ear.
“Silence men, no more shouts. Keep your ears open and your eyes sharp,” his lieutenant said in a loud whisper and the command was passed down the line. The crew fell completely silent. Even the crashing swells seemed to calm. Jake shifted uneasily. It was strange to only hear the canvas flapping in the breeze and water lapping against the hull. The swivel gunner to Jake’s left looked nervous. For the past few days, there was talk of a ghost ship in the area and Jake recognized him as one of the sailors responsible for the rumor. Being generally uneducated and exposed to the mysteries of the vast oceans, seamen tended to be superstitious folk.
Count Varro stepped toward the port side with his ear forward. Jake noticed faint flashes in the mist, and then the distant roar of cannon fire. Captain Albreight raised his arm and an officer relayed the motion to an officer below deck. Albreight dropped his arm and the Marion’s broadside guns fired. A moment after, the enemy’s rounds splashed around the hull. Two cannonballs met their mark. One struck high, splintering some railing at the forecastle. The other hit low, smashing into the lower decks. Captain Albreight barked a few short commands to the officers who passed them on to the helmsman and the sailors working the sails. Then he called for silence once again. The ship turned into the direction the enemy was last seen.
“Shall we make ourselves known, Count Varro?” Captain Albreight asked with a sly grin. Within moments the Marion broke from the thick fog. The enemy vessel emerged shortly after. The Marion sailed on a course to bring its port side right across the bow of the enemy vessel. Jake suspected Captain Albreight planned this. He did not appear surprised, rather, pleased.
“Wait ’til ye can smell their tobacco then let ’em have it, boys,” the marine sergeant called down the line. The men cheered in response. The officers below deck gave the fire in sequence order and the cannons prepared to fire.
As the ships drew closer, the Marion’s crew maintained their strict military bearing as their enemies growled and yelled profanities. Jake suspected the privateersmen didn’t know who they faced. The Marion was unflappable.
One particular privateersman caught Jake’s eye. An ugly fellow with six pistols strung over his shoulders. On the bootlaces holding them together, he wore noses and ears, laced through the lobes; at least twenty of them. Most likely from Brenarian merchants who’d met their gruesome fate at his hand.
“That one’s comin’ for your trophy of a nose, Duncan,” Roy chuckled.
“I’d rather him take my ears so I don’t have to hear the same joke over and over,” Duncan spat back with a smirk.
Jake had found his target. He bent at the hip, resting his supporting elbow on the gunnel. Closing his left eye, he took aim well before any marine was in musket range. The target looked as though he smelled terrible. His scarred face and muscular form suggested he was capable in combat. His grin hinted that he was not afraid. He should have been. Jake learned to hate him in seconds. Jake wanted to hate him. His stained teeth. His wild eyes. Those ears. Jake had chosen this man as the first kill in this engagement. An example to the others.
The privateersman raised a blunderbuss over his head and snarled like an animal, trying to look as intimidating as possible. His yellow teeth had been filed into a grotesque row of fangs. A shark made human. Jake aimed for the privateer’s center of mass. This was the best chance he had of hitting him from that distance on that swaying deck. Inhaling through his nose, Jake held it for a moment. He exhaled from his mouth with tight lips, firing at the bottom of his breath. The loud report made the sailors and marines around Jake jump.
Jake silenced the roaring privateersman abruptly with a gaping hole blown through the left side of his barrel chest. Frothy blood sprayed his nearby crewmates and they fell silent. Brom, Dogwa, Margaret, Duncan and Roy fired shortly after, all scoring kills in a similar fashion. Normally the marine sergeants would reprimand any shooter who had fired too early, but each stood in awe of the distance and accuracy of the shots.
Jake didn’t keep count of his kills anymore. He just didn’t care. Jake didn’t like the idea of wearing imaginary ears around his neck and he vowed to keep his sharpened mind on the conflict, not some unnecessary tally-keeping.
As the ships passed one another, the Marion’s broadside cannons fired one by one as their guns lined up with the enemy vessel. Topside, muskets and swivel guns thinned the enemy crew. Only three of the Marion’s crew fell to enemy fire. Jake was certain the forward-facing guns on the bow of the privateer caused more damage and wounded below deck, but it couldn’t have even been a fraction of the havoc the Marion caused.
The enemy foremast had fallen onto the bowsprit, which did little to keep it from the water. The cannonballs had punctured the privateer’s hull in four places that Jake noticed from where he stood. The crew who still lived either rushed to load cannon, returned sporadic musket and pistol fire or clambered their way out from underneath damaged rigging.
Almost exactly in the Marion’s path, the Albatross emerged from the fog, attracted by the cannon fire. Captain Albreight had the Marion turn, running parallel with the Albatross, flaunting her gold lettering on her stern in the direct sunlight.
Jake could hear privateersmen shouting the Marion’s name in horror to one another. They quickly withdrew back into the fog. The marines and crew cheered, raising their weapons as they watched the enemy vessel turn away.
“Shall we give chase, Captain?” the helmsman asked.
“No,” Captain Albreight responded. “We are not here to hunt privateers.”
Albreight leaned on the railing and surveyed the top deck.
“Mister Allan,” he called one of his officers, “I need you to get a casualty count and a damage report from below, if you please.”
The ships carried on their original course while damage was assessed and repaired.
“Land ho,” a crewman called from the topmast. Jake and Brom spun to the bow. A jagged coastline lumped up faintly through the fog. After a few moments, the port of Delwhick appeared. Attacked so close to land, Jake thought.
“Do you think that ship was making port?” Brom asked.
Jake didn’t want to know the answer to that question. Delwhick had always been a Brenarian port. Spratzian activity near Delwhick would support the headmaster’s theory of a warlock being behind these incidences. “I hope not, Brom.”