For a moment, no one spoke, as if even saying the name of Delacroix’s frigate would bring down some terrible fate.
“Lir and Danu protect us,” Sienna said breathlessly. “You’re sure it’s the Stone Angel?”
“Unfortunately, I am.” Caleb acknowledged. “The only question is how well she’s being handled right now. Maybe I can discern some clues about that.”
He put the spyglass back to his eye. Once again, the dreadful face of the ship’s figurehead glared back at him with a blood-red glow. Caleb lowered the glass slightly. The frigate’s sharp prow threw back twin waves of water, breaking the surface into sparkling foam.
That’s a pronounced bow wave. It means they’re moving fast. Easily as fast as we are, and likely faster.
He shifted his view again, this time above the angel’s baleful red gaze. Now he spotted flickers of movement on deck as crewmen went about their duties. The image slowly grew to fill his view, forcing him to adjust his telescopic sight.
A single point of blue-white glinted from the highest spot, right up by the bow. He squinted at it for a few seconds. Caleb recognized the glint as moonlight reflecting off glass.
“Someone’s got their own spyglass,” he remarked. “They’re watching us out at the same time we’re checking on them.”
“Do you think it could be Delacroix?” Tavia asked. “My magic’s about drained, but I’m sure there are plenty aboard the Spitfire who’d love to take a shot at him if he gets within range.”
“It’s likely. If it isn’t him, then it’s one of his Komturs. And unfortunately, he is going to get within range. And soon.”
That got a chorus of worried murmurs from Sienna’s men. She shushed them, then looked to Caleb.
“We’re not going back to that dungeon,” she said, in a quiet but determined voice. “All of us are ready to sell our blood dearly before they take us.”
“I’m going to do all I can to avoid that outcome,” he replied, in a voice that was just as resolute. “And to do that, we need to keep that frigate out there as far away from us as possible.”
“Just tell us what you want to do.”
Caleb looked forward. The Spitfire’s sails were billowed into full arcs of sailcloth, catching the maximum amount of energy as they sailed at a narrow angle with the wind. He thought for a moment about how to capture even more of that precious resource.
“How many jib sails do we have out?” he asked, pointing to the triangular sheets set towards the bow.
Sienna thought for a moment. “I believe we’re flying a pair of them.”
“I need someone to lead a team, get a third one up there at the bow. Can you handle it?”
“Aye, that I can do. But…won’t you need me here, with the rest of the pistol squad?”
Caleb lowered his voice so that only she could hear him.
“Whether there are three or four people firing pistols on the afterdeck won’t matter much,” he said. “Not against a crew of two hundred or more aboard that frigate. But if we can outrun her, then that makes a big difference. Rig that third sail, then rejoin your squad.”
She considered that, then nodded. Sienna called over one of her men, explained what she had to do, and headed down towards the main deck. She called people together, gesturing towards the bowsprit as she did so.
Caleb took a moment to gauge the wind and look at the moons. Though there were three, they behaved in a similar fashion to the one back on Earth. Right now they continued their slow slide down towards the western horizon, roughly on the steerboard quarter.
That told him the breeze they’d been using continued to blow steadily from the north. And that the Spitfire had sailed roughly south-south-west since leaving Irongrasp. He considered the layout of their sails compared to the Stone Angel and made a decision.
He called down to the quarterdeck, where Donal remained at the wheel.
“Donal, we’re close to running before the wind.”
“Aye, that we are,” the man agreed. “I hear that we’ve got a particularly evil looking frigate chasing us, so that’s not a bad place to be, is it?”
“Not bad, but not the best place either. For a fore-and-aft rigged sloop, our best bet is to run a broad reach, maybe even a broad beam reach.” He gestured towards the stern. “Right now, we’re in a running broad reach, close to the wind’s true direction.”
“It’s giving us the whitecap at the bow, so it’s movin’ us at a good clip!”
“Yes,” Caleb said patiently. “But a running broad reach gives extra speed to a square-rigged ship. It means the Stone Angel’s going to be sailing faster than us at this angle to the wind.”
Donal turned, his eyes wide with shock.
“Lir protect us! What heading do you want, Captain?”
“Two points steerboard, that’ll at least keep us as fast as them. I hope.”
“Aye, two points it is.”
Caleb heard a faint cry from above. The lookouts still perched on the fighting top platform halfway up the vessel’s mainmast waved frantically, trying to get his attention.
“Fog!” one shouted down. “We see a fogbank off to larboard!”
He had the spyglass up to his eye in an instant, scanning forward off to the left. Sure enough, off in the distance a bank of fog lay close to the water like a tattered shroud. But even as hope surged through him, Caleb cursed the distance and direction of the bank.
No telling if that fogbank’s heavy enough to lose the Stone Angel in, he thought. And it’s too far to the south and east. Just to skirt the edge of it, we’d need to run before the wind. That’ll give the speed advantage back to Delacroix!
He cast a glance back towards the frigate. It continued to gain on them, looming in his glass like a growing, deathly shadow. It didn’t seem likely that the sloop could outrun the frigate, at least not for long.
Caleb closed his eyes.
Lir and Danu, you brought me here. Bless the decision I have to make, for I don’t think anyone else aboard gets another chance the way I do.
“All right, bring us two points larboard,” he called down to the helm. “Back to our original course.”
Donal looked back up at him. “Are you sure, Captain?”
“I’m sure, believe me.”
“Aye, though I have misgivings about this in my gut,” Donal sighed, as he turned the wheel.
“Caleb, what are we doing?” Tavia whispered. “I still don’t understand how heading and wind relate. But from what you just said, this direction gives the Stone Angel more speed compared to the Spitfire.”
“It’s a gamble,” he admitted. “But I know this much: at the optimum heading, we’re at best just slightly faster than Delacroix. We’re not going to be over his horizon by dawn. That’ll allow him to stay on our tail all the next day. That’s a lot more time for the wind to shift in his favor, or to die away completely. If either of those things happen, he’ll have us dead to rights.”
The dull ripple of billowing cloth broke their conversation. Caleb looked forward towards where Sienna and her team of helpers had jury-rigged another jib sail forward of the existing two. The new sail was ragged, as if just brought out of storage before being pressed into service.
He peered back towards the Stone Angel. She was easily visible to the naked eye now. Only now something looked strange about her. He frowned, checking her profile until he saw what was different.
An extra pair of booms had been lashed to each side of the ship’s mainmast. The skinny lengths of wood projected an extra ten feet beyond the sides of the square mainsail. As he watched, an extra pair of sails blossomed into being on either side, framed by those booms.
“Dammit, I was afraid of that,” he muttered. “Delacroix just put out a pair of studding sails. That extra canvas cancels out the jib Sienna just put up. We’re committed to our course, then.”
“What do you have in mind, then?” Tavia asked, perplexed. “Allow him to catch us earlier instead of later?”
“There’s a fogbank to the southeast. Going this way, almost due south, we can clip the edge of it.”
“Why not turn more sharply to larboard and head right into the fog?”
“We’ll lose a lot of speed making that turn. Not only does that let the Stone Angel close the distance with us, but it’ll allow her to rake us with her cannon. The one advantage with her being dead astern is that she can’t bring those big guns to bear.”
A double flash came from the Stone Angel’s bow.
Caleb’s mouth went bone dry as he saw it. A full second later, they heard the double boom! of the frigate’s cannon across the water. Suddenly there was a tremendous splash behind the Spitfire. A twenty-foot column of water rose and then fell glittering in the moonlight.
He felt the cool mist from the splash patter across his face even as he continued to face astern. The men around him crouched low, hands gripping pistols as if those weapons could help at all. Cries of shock and despair came from the decks below.
He brought up the spyglass once more. The glare of the frigate’s figurehead filled the view now. A pair of hatches had been opened up in the bow, just below the angel figure’s wings. Twin muzzles projected from the hatches.
Sienna rejoined them on the afterdeck, panting from her run all the way from the bow.
“I didn’t think…Delacroix could…hit us,” she wheezed. “Not when we’re out in front of him!”
“He’s got a pair of bow chase guns on his frigate,” Caleb said. He shook his head ruefully. “I have to give it to the Lord High Captain, he’s planned for everything.”
Grimly, he went back to watching both the frigate and the fog bank. The bank remained elusively out of reach, while the Stone Angel continued to grow in his sights. Another double flash, followed by the nearly synchronized boom!
Something made a massive splash, this time further back from the Spitfire. But a whizzing sound cut the air, followed by the riiiiip! of canvas. He looked forward to see a ragged hole in the shape of a barbell torn in the mainsail.
“What in Kirren’s name is that?” Tavia gasped.
Caleb let out another curse before answering.
“That’s chain shot,” Caleb replied. “Two halves of a cannon ball, held together with an iron chain. It rotates in mid-air and can wreak havoc on sails, lines, and masts. Delacroix’s trying to slow us down even more. But he’s already catching up as it is.”
Tavia stamped her hooves in frustration.
“This can’t be! We escaped his island, we burned his ships, we even got a head start on him! Either we keep ahead of him…or we prepare to fight! We cannot let this evil stand!”
“We need to keep ahead of him yes,” Caleb agreed. His eyes scanned the deck, thinking of the weight and sailing difference between the ships. Finally, something occurred to him. “Sienna, I need your help again. Get a team together to dump our cannon overboard.”
She stared at him in disbelief. The wind tousled her long reddish-brown hair.
“Are you mad?” she cried. “We’ll need those pieces to fight! I already put together a pair of gun crews to fire–”
“We’re not going to win against that frigate!” Caleb retorted, in a voice just under a shout. “Those cannons are the heaviest items on board this ship. If we get rid of them, we’ll be able to stay ahead of Delacroix.”
“But for how long?” Sienna looked to the unicorn. “How do either of you really know that?”
“I trust your judgement,” Tavia said to Caleb. “Yet I mislike leaving a weapon behind unless it’s absolutely necessary. Is this really what you want to do?”