• Published 1st Mar 2019
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Haycartes' Pluperfect Method - Kris Overstreet



Twilight Sparkle has trapped herself in a shelf full of books. Will she survive- or will she lose herself to the story?

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BRAY TO QUARTERS Chapter 16: Pursuit

A mile, in naval combat between sailing ships, is almost as good as a thousand miles. Even in optimal conditions, at the best speed a ship of the line can attain by sail, and even if the target is absolutely stationary, it takes eight minutes to cover that distance, eight minutes during which the enemy is doing everything in their power to stop the ship from coming into range or, failing that, getting more than a couple of shots in.

But in this action, the Lydia enjoyed every possible advantage. Her target was not merely stationary but actually bow into the wind, under tow. Lydia had the wind at her back, a wind just barely moderated from the gale that had pushed the two ships apart after their previous battle. In the darkness of the cloudy pre-dawn sea, Lydia remained virtually invisible except for the trails of the light spells which kept Cumpleanos lit up like a magic lantern.

And most of all, Cumpleanos was filled with confusion after the sudden flashes of light, the coming to life of her enemy, and the sudden loss of her pegasus scouts. The pegasi tethered to the ship milled in the air, neither pulling the crippled two-decker nor returning to allow her to clear for action; ditto the single ship’s boat and its rowers. For the moment the enemy ship lay leaderless, directionless, and helpless.

In time Admiral Shadetree would correct these problems- Twilight didn’t doubt that for a moment. She didn’t intend to allow her that time.

“Starboard a point!” she shouted to the helmsponies. By a miracle the Lydia’s rudder and steering had escaped the damage which had ravaged Lydia’s stern decks. With the frigate picking up speed under sail, the immense rudder bit into the rolling waves, directing Lydia a touch off the wind, but still not far from a collision course with Cumpleanos.

But that wasn’t Twilight’s plan, either. “Hooves to braces!” she shouted. “Mister Thornbush, stand ready for the port tack on my order!”

Sailing past the helpless Cumpleanos on her port side would carry Lydia past too quickly, and moreover it would yield up the weather gage to the enemy. It would also mean coming too close to the enemy ship and her inaccurate but devastating broadside. Making the most of Lydia’s advantages- accuracy, rate of fire, and sailing ability- meant keeping at a distance, especially while night still held. The unicorns couldn’t hold the lighting spell forever.

“Ms. Freerein! When we come about, fire as your guns bear! Give ‘em a reason to back off!”

“Aye aye, ma’am!”

All through the night Lydia had rolled, tossed by the seas, barely able to keep her bows pointed into the waves. Now, with her sails catching the wind, she plowed through the crests of the waves, once more in control of her own destiny, bearing down on Cumpleanos. Orders had been relayed, and slowly, very slowly, the pegasi and the ship’s boat were turning Cumpleanos… to port, trying to either bring their starboard broadside into play or possibly align their port broadside for maximum time on target.

That assumed Lydia would shoot past on Cumpleanos’s port side… and, with Lydia closed to a mere five hundred yards, Shadetree was about to find out how wrong she was.

“Port your helm!” Twilight shouted. “Come about!”

Tacking with the wind behind was nothing like tacking with the wind ahead. There was no danger of being taken aback, with the sails blown against the masts. There was merely the shifting of the sails to channel the wind by a different angle, allowing Lydia to turn with the wind abeam, even to cheat a little into the wind despite the jury mizzenmast. Twilight would keep upwind of Cumpleanos, maintaining the initiative in later combat… and, thanks to Shadetree guessing wrong, she’d also get a perfect shot at the two-decker’s almost unprotected bow.

Lydia came about, and her gunports flew open, hauled up by ponies ready to deliver an unpleasant, and in some cases terminal, surprise to the enemy.

“Steady… steady… FIRE!” Freerein shouted, and almost instantly sixteen guns roared at one hundred and fifty yards’ range. Twilight saw splinters fly, showing at least three hits- excellent shooting in stormy seas at that range.

“Reload and fire at will!” Freerain shouted again. “Hurry, ponies, you’ll never get a target like this again!”

But at the speed Lydia sailed, not all the guns got a second shot before Cumpleanos was out of the line of fire, lying behind them. As Twilight watched, the two-decker’s starboard side erupted in a massive cloud of smoke- Shadetree had been ready, despite the surprise. Shot whistled through the air overhead, and ponies shouted as two lines were severed by the cannonballs. A single crash told of a hit near the waterline.

“Unicorns rest!” she shouted, and the lighting spell went out. “Well done, my little ponies! We hold this course for half an hour, and then at dawn we finish them off!”

The crew cheered their approval. Thornbush, on the other hoof, didn’t seem to agree. Looking worried, he stepped over to her and asked, “Oughtn’t we try to finish them off now? We might not find them in the same place later.”

“Shadetree came to us because a night fight is what she wants,” Twilight said. “She can win a boarding action if she’s willing to spend the blood, and she certainly is. And at point blank range- which is the only way we can conduct a prolonged battle at night- Cumpleanos’s broadsides have the edge. I’m not going to fight by Shadetree’s rules, Mr. Thornbush. I’m going to make her fight by mine.”

“Aye aye, sir,” Thornbush said, obviously still uncertain.

“For now, secure from action stations,” Twilight ordered. “Then get the cook to relight his fires and make sure the crew has a hot meal. They’re going to see more hard work when Celestia raises the sun.”

As Thornbush set about this, Captain Court Summons stepped up, one of the native pegasi in shackles next to him. “We got six of ‘em, ma’am, all right and tight, as you ordered,” he said. “One of ours got a minor wound. Lowly’s wrapped it, but I’d be obliged if you’d stitch it up, ma’am.” He nudged the pegasus and said, “Four of ‘em refuse to talk, and we knocked out one takin ‘er, but this one asked to speak to you, special.”

“Very good,” Twilight said. “Major, be sure the other prisoners are treated as well as possible. We’ll be sending hands to breakfast within the hour. See to it the prisoners get a good hot meal too, understand?”

Summons looked confused by this, but nodded. “Aye, ma’am.”

Satisfied, Twilight turned her attention to the native. “For what it’s worth, you’re out of the fighting now,” she said. “I don’t know if the major explained it to you, but we can’t return you to your home for obvious reasons. But we’re not going to turn you over to the Maredrid authorities, either. We know what they do to anyone they accuse of being a rebel.”

That’s right, Hornsparker thought. Most corrupt old monarchy in the east. The only thing they know how to do is ensure that no rebel has the chance to do it twice. And “looking at me funny” counts as rebellion to some of them.

Twilight struggled not to roll her eyes at this mental aside. In the real world, though Maredrid’s nobility set high standards for uselessness, they weren’t actually any more unpleasant than, say, your average Canterlot snob. But everything his is so much more… brutal. “It is my intention,” Twilight continued, “to take you and any other prisoners I take in this action back around the Great Southern Cape and to Equestria. Once there you’ll have the chance to make a new life for yourself.” She frowned as she added, “I’m sorry I can’t let you return to your friends and family, but I can’t allow you to return to Xipe Totec’s service.”

“NO!” the pegasus shouted, flinching back. “Not back to Xipe Totec!” Despite her shackles, the pegasus attempted to fly, as if Twilight were the mad mule herself. “You saw the wheels! You saved my brother from the wheels! And all he say was Don Sunstruck’s name!” Now the pegasus leaned forward. “May I see my brother? I know he is with you!”

“What’s his name?”

“Blue Maize.”

“Pass the word for Blue Maize!” Twilight shouted. “And while we’re waiting, um…”

“Cloud Cotton, senora captain!” the pegasus said quickly.

“Ms. Cotton, perhaps you could tell us how things stand on the Cumpleanos?

As Twilight learned over the following five minutes, things stood very poorly. Hornsparker’s guesses had been generally accurate. Cumpleanos’s pumps worked constantly to keep the ship afloat, while the native carpenters cannibalized ship’s rails and spare sail to try to plug the dozen shot holes below the waterline. With her foremast and the top mainmast gone, the two-decker could barely sail, and only one old spar had been intact enough to serve as a sort of Lateen foremast. And- this last fact made Twilight want to cry, despite everything- their casualties had been almost double Twilight’s, with over one hundred and twenty ponies dead or wounded, and not even a Lowly to ease their suffering.

“That leaves about four hundred of us,” Cloud Cotton said. “Shadetree has six unicorns, seven of the pegasi, and a hundred Hornseca earth ponies fanatically loyal to Xipe Totec still. But the old crew only serve out of fear. Shadetree keeps them from organizing a mutiny. She makes an example every watch, captain. Every watch, some pony bleeds out on the deck. She is as mad as her master, captain. But it works.”

“Why did you stay?” Twilight asked. “You could fly away.”

Mi mama, mi papa,” Cloud Cotton said. “They are old, but they still live. They are in the village still. Shadetree says if I do not serve well, Xipe Totec will have them sacrifice to the harvest. Other pegasi, the unicorns, they are the same.”

Twilight frowned. “If Xipe Totec loses, what will happen to your family?”

Cloud Cotton shrugged. “Mama and papa are old,” she said. “If I am gone, and my brother, and if the burros do not burn the village, I think they will be left alone.” She hung her head and added, “But even if not, I cannot protect them now. If I go back I will die, one way or another.”

Twilight nodded. “I’m sorry,” she said. By this time Blue Maize, who had been given a landspony’s job hauling ropes under supervision, had been brought up to the quarterdeck. “Mr. Maize, I’m sending you with your sister to the hold with the prisoners. I’m sorry, but while you’re down there you’ll have to be in chains. I can’t risk the possibility of an escape in battle. I hope you understand.”

“You save me from the sun and the wheel, ma’am,” Blue Maize said, saluting. “You hold my life in your hooves.”

“I’ll try to keep it well, Maize,” Twilight said. “Major Summons, take good care of them.”

We’ll put them to good work after the battle, Hornsparker thought. We’ll need all hands to get back around the cape.

Can’t you think of anything other than your precious ship? Twilight thought. Like, maybe, the ponies on it?

The ship is the ponies on it, Hornsparker replied, and that ended the mental conversation.




“Sail ho!”

The cry rang out within a minute of the sun rising again. There, almost on the horizon, lay Cumpleanos, over ten miles distant and under what could, with equal justice, be called either full sail or a washing-line.

“Will you hark at that?” Thornbush laughed. “Shadetree’s soiled herself and is doing her laundry today!”

Twilight didn’t laugh. Cumpleanos was before the wind and sailing as fast as she could. Likely she had set sail the minute Lydia had gone from sight, the minute Shadetree had realized her sneak attack had failed. With the advantage of night gone, insane as she was, she had to know her only hope was to run before the wind and pray for a miracle.

But it wasn’t as hopeless as Twilight had thought a few hours before. Cumpleanos was crawling, but she was under way, making two or possibly three knots before the wind. With that same wind moderated, Lydia currently made six knots. At their current relative rates of speed, it would be close to noon before Lydia could engage. A great many things could happen in that time- another squall, a broken spar or split sail, anything.

Twilight had sailed away from Cumpleanos for half an hour for fear of running past the enemy in the pre-dawn darkness by mistake. That had been a mistake, and it threatened to cost them victory. She glanced over at Thornbush, who was carefully looking anyplace except at his captain.

He has “I told you so” written all over his face, Hornsparker grumbled.

Why didn’t you say something at the time? Twilight asked.

Because it was the right thing to do. If we’d stayed close, Shadetree might have attempted something else while we weren’t looking. Night actions are generally to be avoided, in any case; too much can go wrong.

Then let him say I told you so if he wants.

He can think it all he wants, Hornsparker snarled, so long as he doesn’t dare say it.

And suddenly Axle Wheel stood next to Twilight. “I’ve seen to Lord Iron Press, ma’am,” he said. “An’ I’ve brought you a tray, since you didn’t have breakfast with the crew, ma’am.” Coffee, fresh-made skillet cornbread with cane molasses, and a pawpaw sliced up on a little dish. Twilight’s mouth watered at the sight, though her greatest desire lay in the black liquid in the steaming mug.

“An’ his lordship’s compliments, ma’am, and please may he stay in the orlop when action is renewed.”

Twilight almost spewed half her coffee out of the mug. She forced herself to complete the sip of the hot brew, then asked, “Why?” A Canterlot lord, among dozens of wounded and probably dying ponies, in their own filth and bloody bandages?

“He said there’s light in th’ orlop, an’ th’ rats stay out, ma’am,” Wheel said. “An’ he says he can be of use there.”

“If that’s what he wants, fine,” Twilight said.

“An’ his lordship says, best of fortune today… an’… um…”

“Spit it out!”

“An’ he’s confident you’ll meet with the success you deserve, ma’am,” Wheel blurted out. “Beggin’ your pardon, ma’am.”

Inside her head, Twilight felt Hornsparker blush. She hoped it didn’t actually show on her face. “Kindly tell him thank you when you go,” she said. “Go see to whatever he needs.”

“Aye, ma’am,” Wheel said. “Shall I wait for your tray first, ma’am?”

Twilight rushed through her breakfast- a vast improvement over her first couple of horrible meals in this story- I must remember, this is still only a story- and downed her coffee as quickly as she could manage. Axle Wheel must have brewed it fresh. She noticed other stewards making the rounds of the officers, bringing cornbread and coffee mugs. Good, she thought.

Mug in hoof, Thornbush walked over to Twilight and said, “Ma’am, I think th’s sun’s swallowin’ up the wind.”

Twilight barely stopped herself from saying, “Huh?” Instead she thought, The sun does what?

We’re not far north of the doldrums, Hornsparker thought. In tropic seas, when it gets hot, often the air goes still. Some wind at dawn and dusk, but none in midday. We could be becalmed, while a mere mile away another ship has wind.

Oh.

…. OH!

“That’s excellent news, Thornbush!” Twilight said, unable to suppress her excitement.

“Beg your pardon, ma’am?” Thornbush said. “If the wind doesn’t fall, we’ll be up to th’ enemy in three hours. But if it does fall off-“

“If it does fall off, they’ll be totally at our mercy!”

Thornbush’s confused expression made it the rest of the way to total bewilderment. “Aye aye, ma’am,” he said, because it was the only thing the laws of the sea allowed him to say to a captain temporarily out of her senses.

“But don’t you see?” Twilight blinked, then said, “No, wait, I guess you don’t. Let me explain…”

Author's Note:

There may not be an update tomorrow, since I have to do setup for AggieCon in College Station, TX, and also try to do some work on Peter is the Wolf, and the next chapter is going to be a real biggie.

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