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On the Possibilities of Sail

Chapter Text

Terror's scream rings above the crash of the cannon, an unearthly, wailing chord that vibrates through the timbers of the ship and every nerve in Stephen's body. As the serpent lunges forward Surprise shudders and heels, her rails shot away, her wheelhouse a splintered ruin, ropes snapping, the great chains of Terror's harness straining against their giant bolts. Above Stephen's head the masts with their sharp-shooters groan and flex, cross-trees collapsing, the rattle of the Marine's rifles silenced by that great cry. A sailor tumbles from the shrouds, his cry soundless and lost in Terror's roar, reaching for the safety of stays that fray and snap even as he falls. The very deck itself seems to flex and bend.

To Stephen, on hands and knees, clinging to the hatch cover, the serpent's battle-stance makes a towering, monolith of their harnessed giant. Terror rears from the sea, the curve of its neck rising above the decks, higher than than the first spar on the foremast and still straightening. The fins on its back stream like medieval battle flags, flushed scarlet, and every scale ripples with the reflected flash of cannon fire. The serpent is raised so high its lateral fins spear the smoke, massive clawed fans streaming with sea-water, and still it strains and heaves. Stephen, his ears ringing, can no longer hear the cries of the gun captains nor the call of the controlling serpentia urging Terror to its battle frenzy, but Surprise shudders again and again as her cannons roar. It appears impossible that Jack should keep his footing on the rising deck, but above him their captain, his hair flying and his coat ripped to shreds, bears the semblance of a figure drawn from some heroic epic. Jack has long since discarded the reins that hold Terror to the ship's will and the Admiralty's orders, he has a pistol in one hand and a cutlass in the other, and if he has any means at all of controlling the great beast that is Surprise's sole means of propulsion, her strength and her slave, Stephen has no notion what that might be.

The smoke of battle, wreathed across the deck and billowing around the serpent, is a tattered cloak. Torn through by cannon shot and the vagaries of the wind, it reveals in glimpses the wooden hull of the Spanish frigate beyond, her crowded encastlements and the spear of her bowsprit. For an instant, the swirl of it clears and Stephen sees the black and crimson stathes of her hull and the gaping threat of her open gun ports. High above him, the Santa Maria's figurehead is as clear as a pieta in the cathedrals of Seville, all blue robes and golden hair. And then, in horrific, monstrous clarity, the Spanish sea serpent too rises from the sea and hides all that foreign glory in terrible rage. Terror is all rich greens and blues, shading to cream at his belly, but the Spanish serpent is mottled and scarred, its underside grey and its back black, save for the streaming crimson of the great gashes across its scales where Surprise's cannon fire has ripped into its flesh. Even as Stephen stares in horror at the massive rise of its crested head, the scarlet maw of its mouth where every fang is the size of a man, he mourns for the damage done to the creature. One of its fins has been completely shot away, the other bloodied and collapsing. A gash across its throat has clearly glanced from the great chain that holds it to the Spanish ship, and its collar is embedded in the wound, tearing at its flesh. Other wounds mar the black scales and bloody its belly.

Terror screams again, and although Stephen has been told the serpent is an unfeeling beast, created by God to serve the aims of the Admiralty alone, a creature only given purpose by its chains, he cannot but hear defiance and pain in that unearthly cry. "God forgive us," he finds himself praying, he who has long since discarded many of the Latin strictures of his faith for the rationality of the enlightenment. "Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners," he whispers, although the words are torn from his mouth by the thunder of the cannons.

Between the ships, the serpents clash with the power of titans. Belly to belly, roaring their defiance, they slam into each other, mindless of the ships dragged in their wake. The power of their bodies is such that the sea itself boils and heaves. Every striving twist of their bodies flings sheets of water higher than than Surprise's battle-masts, water that crashes down on the deck, sweeps away the remains of the wheelhouse, and upturns and ruins their two chained stern chasers. It rips ropes from bolt and cleat, and tumbles their compass master clear from quarter-deck to capstan. Surprise is battered and listing, her decks pitted and her masts groaning as they sway, barely anchored by fraying hawsers, but the marines are still defiantly firing across the battling serpents to the frigate beyond and the cannons, firing singly now, still give tongue. Even as Stephen watches, the Spanish serpent writhes and shudders as a lucky shot tears across its exposed belly.

It is Terror, though, who is screaming. It's a cry of such rage and pain Stephen himself flinches, although he cannot take his eyes away from the way Surprise's serpent rears back, curling around the pain of a shot that has stripped its back to the bone. Terror's mouth is wide open, its eyes rolling back in its head, all their gold shot to blood-streaked red. Transfixed by horror and pity both, Stephen sees the great serpent tighten every muscle. Then, Terror drives, fast as a cobra, down onto the Spanish serpent. It has the Spaniard's crested neck between its teeth. Although Terror's eyes are closed and it shudders with pain, the power of its muscles as it bites down, shaking the Spanish serpent, is awe-inspiring. Despite the way every struggle widens the gaping wound on its back, Terror hangs on, twining its neck against the Spaniard, , their bodies clinging and sliding in a battle that has brought them as close as lovers, yard after yard of gleaming scales cleaving the waves.

The sea is red with blood.

And then, a clarion-call, sounding through their tattered shrouds and through the sea-spray, arresting, irresistable, out rings the sound of their serpentia. Up on the quarterdeck, Jack has discarded his weapons. He has Terror's reins in both hands, and, seemingly unaware of the absurdity of setting his strength against the serpent's, he has braced himself against the central bolted yoke and with every muscle in his body he is heaving backwards. Beside him, their serpentia player is crouched on the deck, but playing, the notes round and clear and so familiar Stephen can almost put words to the soundless cry. "To sea! To sea!" the serpentia cries to the serpent, and enchanted by this artificial mockery of a companion's voice, of the many voices Terror must once has known when he was a shoaling elver in the Admiralty's birthing pens, Terror cannot but respond.

His body stills. The slide of his scales against the Spanish serpent's slows, becomes a slow roll, a sensuous, lingering slide, a caress. His jaw loosens, his fangs sliding free, and as his eyes slide half-open he rolls his vast head against the Spaniard's, their trailing head-fins entangling against their blood-spattered scales. Stephen's heart is in his mouth, waiting for the Spanish serpent to strike, but instead it too is ducking its head, allowing its body to curve alongside their own Terror's, and the noise it makes is a heart-wrenching croon.

The serpentia calls again - "To sea!". Terror's eyes roll back in its head. Stephen could swear, he would set hand to heart and swear to it, Terror looks Jack in the eye, the reins loose, the serpent looming over the ship, the flush of battle crimson in its fins and Jack's face alike, their eyes meeting. Then, as practised as any workhorse, Terror slips under the waves and the chains snap taut. Surprise is ceding ground, leaving the battle, under way, bending to the strength of her serpent.

It is Stephen, uncurling his fingers from their grip on the hatch, who glances up and sees the end of Terror's tail loosening from the Spanish serpent's with one last, mutual caress.