Not far above Captain Hunter’s borrowed longskiff, a chaos of gunfire and swordplay echoed across the Brass Griffin‘s deck. With the tethers firmly attached, the Griffin had been drawn close enough to the mercenaries’ airship for two boarding parties of sailors to swing over and board her. Blasts of orange fire erupted from the bow, followed by deadly showers of bullets that peppered men and ship alike. Some of the crew fell in the volley of gunfire, but many stood their ground. Smoke burned eyes, smudged skin. Small fires burned in different places on the deck and rigging. Everywhere the faces of both crews took on the ghastly palor of desperate men fighting for their ships, and therefore, their lives.
Close to one of the tether lines, Krumer lashed out with his cutlass. His intended target, a younger man in tight black cotton trousers, boots, white shirt and an elegant blue vest laughed and danced aside. The man was an elf, as was evident due to the slight graceful point of his ears and the distinctive arch of his eyebrows over his amber eyes. He spun like a well-trained dancer, his long, braided pony tail flowing behind him. Despite the air of grace and poise about the elf, the light in his eyes was wild and insane. Krumer’s look, in contrast, was one of mild amusement mixed with irritation at the insulting fop in front of him.
“Come Orc! Surely someone taught you to use that blade better than one uses a butter knife!”
The elven fop completed his spin, only to find the point of Krumer’s sword stuck through the fabric of his expensive vest, and into the wood behind him. Krumer grinned, then hammered a massive, well-tanned right fist into the fop’s face once, twice, then a final time. Punch-drunk, the elven fop swung his rapier in a wild slice. Krumer let go of his own sword and neatly sidestepped the poor attack.
Then, he raised his fists and adopted a pugilist’s stance. “Why no. But I did manage to learn a little when I took to boxing for a year in London.” The fop started to reply and raise his sword, but Krumer interrupted that conversation with two fast jabs from his left, followed by his right, which hit the elven fop like a sledgehammer. Lips split, the elf’s head rocked back and forth twice before he slowly oozed down the wood to the deck. With a chuckle, Krumer yanked his cutlass from the wood and turned away from his unconscious opponent.
Across the deck, the pitched battle had taken its toll on both sides. However, with a third of the mercenaries’ crew on ground and a third having to man the guns and ship, that only left a third to try and cram themselves aboard a vessel half the size of their own. They simply could not get enough numbers past the Brass Griffin‘s crew to subdue the smaller vessel.
“Push ’em back, lads! We’re taking the fight out of them!” Krumer shouted.
The first mate waded into the mass of blades and chaos. Eventually, Krumer made his way to one of the tethers at the railing. With a quick succession of slices, the first mate frayed the braided leather and let the pull of the Griffin do the rest. The first tether snapped with a loud pop and fell away. The ship shuddered, as if relieved to be free off one of her burdens. On deck, with raw, bloody determination, the crew finally pushed the mercenaries back to their own vessel.
From the bow, a shout rose over the fighting. “It’s the Cap’n!”
Tonks and Krumer, both looked around in the direction the crewman had indicated. Krumer’s grin broadened. “Ah, it’s good to see him alive and breathing.”
Tonks shook his head with a dark look, then pointed higher above Captain Hunter’s longskiff. “Look above. He’ll not be that for long.”
From the far side of the larger airship, three steambats arced up, then banked hard. It was obvious that their target was not the partially tethered Griffin, but the longskiff!
Immediately, Krumer sheathed his cutlass in his belt and strode across the deck to recover a fallen rifle. “Not if we give them something more interesting to chew upon.”
The first mate checked his load, aimed and then fired. However, the three steam-powered biplanes continued to arc and dive on the longskiff. Krumer reloaded and fired again, then again.
“Don’t waste the ammo!” Tonks shouted. “They’re outta range!”
“I’ll not just stand by and do nothing!” Krumer shouted back angrily.
Tonks glanced at the trio of steambats, then back at the longskiff. Already the steambats had opened fire. Bullets and electrified jets of salt water reached angrily for the slower-moving longskiff. Bits of wood peppered and flaked off its hull. While his eyes measured the distance, a smile grew on the pilot’s face as inspiration dawned on him. He grinned at Krumer. “Ya want your shot? I’ve got an idea that’ll give it to ya!”
The first mate gave the pilot a curious look. “What would that be?”
Without warning, Tonks spun the wheel hard, turning the Griffin away from the mercenaries’ airship. Unprepared, Krumer flew off his feet, then onto his backside. Before he could right himself, Krumer, along with several of the crew, slid wildly across the deck and slammed into the starboard rail, crashed into barrels, and smashed through crates that lay within their path. The Griffin strained and pulled at the single tether, which stretched so taught that the Griffin’s port side hull buckled outward from the tension. Tonks struggled with the wheel and trim controls. Slowly, amid the Griffin’s creaks and groans of stressed rigging and damaged structure, she turned her bow in the direction of the steambats and the longskiff.
The muscles on Tonks’ arms bulged and his face turned red while he struggled to keep the Griffin aimed where he wanted. From the port side, the creaking rose in intensity to nearly a panic-filled shriek of strained wood and brass fittings. The winch at the other end of the tether pulled mercilessly, stretching the braided leather leash until it visibly grew thinner.
Krumer got to his knees and rubbed his head where he had collided with a barrel. “Tonks! What in all the spirits are you about? Have you completely slipped your cog?”
Tonks squeezed his eyes shut and replied through clenched teeth. “Don’t have time ta explain. Just cut the bloody tether afore we rip in two!”
Krumer had known Tonks for many a year. His tribal instincts screamed at him to run away, that his own life was in danger from whatever Tonks had in mind. However, Krumer trusted Tonks. He had known him too long to believe the man would needlessly put their lives in danger. Scrambling to his feet, Krumer raced as best he could across the slanted deck to grab a forgotten axe embedded in the mast. The orc jerked that free, then at the port railing swung the blade over his head. For a moment, the sunlight glinted off the metal of the weapon before Krumer bellowed an ancient war cry of his people. With one powerful slice, the axe severed the braided leather line that was, even stretched, nearly as thick as a man’s arm.
The tether cracked like a whip in the air and snapped backwards towards the winch on the other ship. Released from the leather leash, the Griffin shot forward with a shriek from strained planks and wind tossed rigging. On deck, the crew clung to the rail, rigging, tied down barrels, anything stable. When she launched forward, Krumer had been thrown clear across the deck again, this time against the steps to the quarterdeck. Slowly, he righted himself and ascended the ladder.
“I trust you know what you’re about!” Krumer shouted over the high winds.
Tonks had stood again, but his eyes were riveted on their new course heading – right between the steambats and the longskiff. “Aye, that makes the both o’ us! We’ll only get one shot here! Make that broadside a’ good one!” The pilot took a deep breath to steady a brief twinge in his nerves. “Comin’ in fast. Steambats on the port side! Gunners better get ready!”
On the quarterdeck now, Krumer clutched rail next to the ladder and took a deep breath before he bellowed to the main deck. “Goggles down! To your cannons! I want those ‘bats out of our sky!”
The main deck came alive like an anthill with his orders. Crew members – both the lightly wounded and the lucky few still unharmed – raced or limped to the left side of the Griffin and muscled cannon into place.
“Comin’ in steep!” Tonks called out. “Arrivin’ in ten, nine …”
Shouts echoed the call on the main deck. Gunners braced for the moment while the hum of lightning cannons filled the air like a swarm of enraged bees.
“… three, two, one!”
Krumer slammed his right fist against the railing. “Fire broadside! Fire! Fire!”
At the first mate’s command, each cannon shook, then spit fire and lightning. The left side of the ship erupted with a bright, intense light as the thunderous roll of cannon vibrated the very air. White-hot scrap metal and streams of salt water, overcharged with electricity, reached out to clutch at the fast moving steambats with a hungry intensity. For the trio of steambat pilots, realization came to them at the last moment when the Griffin shoved across their path, much faster than she should have been able to. Frantically, they tried to bank, to turn. To be anywhere but where they were right at that moment. However, the Griffin was bent on protecting her missing crew in the longskiff. She was not to be denied. The steambats erupted in balls of canvas, steam, wood and brass. Their debris rained down around and on the Griffin.
Just a few yards below the Griffin, her captain sailed past with as much speed as the longskiff could manage. He saw the exchange above, and despite an involuntary wince at the strain he just knew had happened to his ship, he wanted to salute and smile at the ingenuity of his crew. At that moment, however, he had larger issues to concern himself with.
“I’m losing starboard control, Moira! We’re listing badly! Pray tell, what did we lose?” Hunter called out while he fought with the wheel.
Moira, with Angela in close tow, scrambled to the right side and peered over. While a longskiff was held aloft by an appropriate-sized gas bag, it was only the means of lift, not propulsion. On the rear and just below the line of sight there were three propellers – one large and two small – and a small set of fins. The large propeller provided the main means of forward motion, but the fins and smaller propellers could tilt and adjust. These allowed the pilot to fine tune the direction or turn. At that moment, only the main propeller, fin and smaller propeller for the left side of the small boat were functional. The smaller right propeller hung at a crazed angle and the small right fin had been snapped cleanly in the middle.
Moira leaned back up and looked at Captain Hunter.
Hunter struggled with the wheel and frowned. “Well?”
Moira exchanged a worried look with Angela then they both leaned back over the side at the damage. The two ladies then leaned back into the longskiff. Moira looked around, a bright glimmer in her eyes. “It’s na gone.”
Hunter’s frown darkened. “What? How do you mean?”
Angela bit her lip and looked over the side again. Moira’s eyes settled on running boards, stowed oars and other parts of the longskiff. “Ah can be fixin’ it.”
The young werewolf girl sat up straight and stared aghast at Moira. “What?”
Hunter raised an eyebrow suspiciously but reserved his comments, since the longskiff chose that moment to fight him again while they passed beneath the Griffin. “Good.”
Moira turned towards Angela. “And Ah’ll be needin’ yer help.”
Angela’s eyes grew wider. She pointed at the side with the damage just when the longskiff jerked on the wind. “But … it’s danglin’ …” she said in a small voice.
The blacksmith ignored the girl’s protests and looked around the longskiff. “Aye, aye. We’ll be needing somethin’ fer that.” Moira pulled loose one of the plank seats, snatched up spare rope, and grabbed an emergency hatchet. Again the blacksmith cast about the boat for anything loose.
“Moira… the fan thing.” Angela stammered when another groan of metal escaped the wounded machinery.
“Aye, it be called a ‘screw’, sweet peach.” Moira answered quickly while she checked the rope for any frayed spots.
“It’s … danglin’. I think it’s goin’ to fall. How’re we going to fix somethin’ like that?”
Moira frowned and looked over the side at the damaged section. She sat up and glanced over her loose collection of random parts in front of her. Without another thought, she opened a small panel in a small box next to the opti-telegraphic then yanked out a long bundle of wires. Angela jumped as if shot and stared in horror at what Moira had done.
She presented the batch to Angela, “That’s what we’ll be usin’.”
The girl looked at the box, then the wires. She shook them slightly at Moira. “Don’t we need these for something important?”
Moira shook her head. “Na a bit. Those be for a backup, emergency battery. We can be missin’ it for a bit. Now hold on a moment.” With a savage swing, Moira slammed the hatchet down against the longskiff bottom and severed the rope she had found in two.
She handed one end to Angela. “Hand me what Ah’ll be askin’ for, when Ah call out.”
Angela whimpered slightly, but eventually sighed then nodded.
Suspended by a tenuous balance on the rail with her foot hooked under a wooden seat plank, Moira fashioned a makeshift splint by lashing the wood to the broken fin with the remains of the rope. The wires she used to repair frayed connections to the propeller and lash the housing of the screw to a set of twisted bolts that protruded from the hull.
Moira leaned back up just as the longskiff bounced once more, jostling its occupants. Crude as the repairs were, the damaged screw sputtered, hummed, then began to spin. In moments, the little boat steadied out, despite the high winds and occasional bullets or debris that fell past. Moira brushed her hands together with a satisfied smile.
“That’ll do ‘er, Cap’n! Least till Ah can be gettin’ get at it proper with tools and more a few bits and pieces.”
Captain Hunter nodded. A smile of approval appeared briefly on his face while he navigated the perilous route through the aerial combat around them. “Excellent, as we are about to land. Though I fear it may be a bit … steep.”
This time it was Moira’s turn to look stunned. “What?”
Behind her, Angela, turned to look in the direction they were headed. Abruptly, she let out a shrieking howl of surprise and terror. Moira spun around as Angela cowered against her, eyes closed.
“What be the noise?” The rest of Moira’s words caught in her throat when she saw where they were.
The longskiff had sailed directly underneath the Brass Griffin. From there they had turned to move between the Griffin and the mercenaries’ larger airship! Cannon and rifle fire flew between the two in bursts of deadly light. The yells and cries of pain from both crews filled the air between the thunderous boom of cannon and staccato crack of rifles. Bullets and lighting criss-crossed the air to form a lethal net.
Just beyond the deadly display, the landing harness for the mercenaries’ airship took shape out of thick clouds of bitter smoke. A steambat aircraft waited in the cradle of leather for the pilot to slide the craft out into the air. The small craft’s propellers spun as the steam engine boiled to life, pulling the canvas and wood craft into the air, then directly into the path of a stream of lightning from the Brass Griffin. High pressure jets of water hammered the canvas structure, and lightning played violently across the brass fittings of the engine. Wires melted, canvas burned and metal pipes deformed then broke away from their fittings. No more than a moment after her launch, the steambat turned her nose down and fell the ground below.
“That’s where we’ll board her!” Hunter shouted over the chaos.
“There?” Moira looked from the landing harness to the smoke and fire beyond, then back to Captain Hunter.
“Yes, there. We’re only ten feet above where we need to be. Just have to bring the ‘skiff down a touch.”
Moira wiped a grease-stained hand across her face and let out a shuddering sigh. “Oh … my. Cap’n’s at the helm.” The blacksmith joined Angela in closing her eyes.
Hunter let the shade of a grin touch his lips before he pulled a cord to slow-vent the air of the gas bag and hit the emergency stop lever on the longskiff’s engine. “Indeed.”
The small craft shuddered, as the engine stopped. Abruptly, the boat dropped sharply towards the net.