“Oh, God,” I said.
My feet disappeared, then my ankles, and before I knew it I was in up to my knees, desperately yanking at my legs, trying to pull them free, while at the same time bracing myself with one hand on the firmer ground around me, trying to keep my sword raised with the other.
My eyes went to Pointy-Ears, and it was his turn to grin now as he came forward and brought his sword down in a chopping, two-handed blow that had plenty of force but was clumsy. With a grunt of effort and a ring of steel I met it and parried, sending him back a couple of steps. Then, as he was off balance, I pulled one of my feet clear of the mud, and my boot, saw my white stocking, filthy as it was, bright compared to the dirt around it.
Seeing his advantage being squandered, Pointy-Ears pressed forward again, this time stabbing forward with his sword, and I defended once and then twice. For a second there was only the sound of clashing steel, of grunts and the rain, harder now, slapping into the mud, me silently thanking God his reserves of cunning were exhausted.
Or were they? At last he realized I would be beaten more easily if he moved to the rear of me, but I saw what was on his mind and lashed out with my sword, catching him at the knee just above his boot and sending him crashing back, howling in agony. With a cry of pain and indignity he got to his feet, driven on perhaps by outrage that his victory wasn’t being given to him more easily, and kicked out with his good foot.
I caught it with my other hand and twisted it as hard as I could, hard enough to send him spinning and sprawling facedown to the mud.
He tried to roll away, but was too slow, or too dazed, and I stabbed downwards with my sword, driving it through the back of his thigh, straight into the ground and spearing him there. At the same time I used the handle as a grip and with a wrench pulled myself from the mud, leaving my second boot behind.
He screamed and twisted, but was held in place by my sword through his leg. My weight on him as I used the sword as leverage to drag myself from the ooze must have been unbearable, and he shrieked in pain and his eyes rolled back in their sockets. Even so, he slashed wildly with his sword and I was unarmed so that, as I flopped on to him, like a badly landed fish, the blade caught me on the side of the neck, opening a cut and letting out blood that felt warm on my skin.
My hands went to his, and suddenly we were grappling for possession of the sword. Grunting and cursing we fought, when from behind I heard something—something that was surely the sound of approaching feet. Then voices. Somebody speaking in Dutch. I cursed.
“No,” said a voice, and I realized it was me.
He must have heard it, too.
“You’re too late, Kenway,” he snarled.
The tramping of the feet from behind me. The rain. My own cries of “No, no, no,” as a voice said, in English, “You there. Stop at once.”
And I twisted away from Pointy-Ears, smacking the wet mud in frustration as I pulled myself upright, ignoring the sound of his harsh and jagged laugh as I rose to meet the troops who appeared from within the fog and rain, trying to bring myself to full height as I said, “My name is Haytham Kenway, and I am an associate of Lieutenant-Colonel Edward Braddock. I demand this man be given into my custody.”
The next laugh I heard, I wasn’t sure if it came from Pointy-Ears, who still lay pinned to the ground, or perhaps from one of the small band of troops who had materialized before me, like wraiths delivered from the field. Of the commander I saw a moustache, a dirty, wet, double-breasted jacket trimmed with sodden braid that had once been the colour gold. I saw him raising something—something that seemed to flash across my eye line—and realized he was striking me with the hilt of the sword an instant before he made contact, and I lost consciousness.
They don’t put unconscious men to death. That would not be noble. Not even in an army commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Edward Braddock.
And so the next thing I felt was cold water slapping into my face—or was it an open palm on my face? Either way, I was being rudely awakened, and as my senses returned I spent a moment wondering who I was, where I was . . .
And why I had a noose around my neck.
And why my arms were tied behind my back.
I was at one end of a platform. To my left were four men, also, like me, with their necks in nooses. As I watched, the man on the far left jerked and shook, his feet kicking at empty air.
A gasp went up in front of me and I realized that we had an audience. We were no longer in the battlefield but in some smaller pasture where men had assembled. They wore the colours of the British Army and the bearskin hats of the Coldstream Guards, and their faces were ashen. They were here under sufferance, it was clear, forced to watch as the poor unfortunate at the end of the line kicked his last, his mouth open, and the tip of his tongue, bleeding from having been bitten, protruding, his jaw working in to try and gulp air.
He continued to twitch and kick, his body shaking the scaffold, which ran the length of the platform above our heads. I looked up and saw my own noose tied to it, cast my eyes downwards to the wooden stool on which I stood, and saw my feet, my stockinged feet.
There was a hush. Just the sound of the hanged man dying, the creak of the rope and the complaint of the scaffold.
“That’s what happens when you’re a thief,” screeched the executioner, pointing at him then striding down the platform towards the second man, calling out to the stock-still crowd, “You meet your maker at the end of a rope, orders of Lieutenant-Colonel Braddock.”
“I know Braddock,” I shouted suddenly. “Where is he? Bring him here.”
“Shut your mouth, you!” bawled the executioner, his finger pointed, while at the same time his assistant, the man who’d thrown water in my face, came from my right and slapped me again, only this time not to bring me to my senses but to silence me.
I snarled and struggled with the rope tying my hands, but not too vigorously, not enough so that I would overbalance and fall from the stool on which I was so perilously perched.
“My name is Haytham Kenway,” I called, the rope digging into my neck.
“I said, ‘Shut your mouth!’” the executioner roared a second time, and again his assistant struck me, hard enough so that he almost toppled me from the stool. For the first time I caught sight of the soldier strung up to my immediate left and realized who it was. It was Pointy-Ears. He had a bandage that was black with blood around his thigh. He regarded me with cloudy, hooded eyes, a slow, sloppy smile on his face.
By now the executioner had reached the second man in the line.