Standing behind him, I thrust my blade into his spinal cord and he stared in blank amazement at the bloodstained tip as it protruded from his chest.
“You promised . . .” he said.
“And he kept his word,” I said coldly, and looked at Connor, almost daring him to contradict me. “Let’s go,” I added, just as a trio of riflemen rushed on to the balcony above us with a clatter of boots on wood, tucked their rifle musket butts into their shoulders and opened fire. But not at us, at barrels nearby, which, too late, I realized were full of gunpowder.
I just had time to heave Connor behind some beer kegs as the first of the barrels went up, followed by the ones around it, each exploding with a deafening thunderclap that seemed to bend the air and stop time—a blast so fierce that, when I opened my eyes and took my hands away from my ears, I found I was almost surprised the warehouse was still standing around us. Every man in the place had either hurled himself to the ground or been thrown there by the force of the explosion. But the guards were picking themselves up, reaching for their muskets and, still deafened, shouting at each other as they squinted through the dust for us. Flames were licking up the barrels; crates catching fire. Not far away, a guard came running on to the warehouse floor, his clothes and hair ablaze, screamed as his face melted then sank to his knees and died facedown to the stone. The greedy fire found some nearby crate stuffing, which went up in an instant. All around us, an inferno.
Musket balls began zipping around us. We felled two swordsmen on our way to the steps leading up to the gantry then hacked our way through a squad of four riflemen. The fire was rising quickly—even the guards were beginning to escape now—so we ran to the next level, climbing up and up, until at last we’d reached the attic of the brewery warehouse.
Our assailants were behind us, but not the flames. Looking out of a window, we could see water below us, and I cast around for an exit. Connor grabbed me and swung me towards the window, smashing the two of us through the glass so that we dropped to the water before I’d even had a chance to protest.
7 MARCH 1778
There was no way I was going to let Benjamin get away. Not having had to put up with life on the Aquila for almost a month, trapped with Connor’s friend and ship’s captain Robert Faulkner, among others, chasing Benjamin’s schooner, which had stayed just out of our reach, dodging cannon attacks, catching tantalizing glimpses of him on the deck of his ship, his taunting face . . . No way was I going to let him get away. Especially as we came so close in waters close to the Gulf of Mexico, the Aquila at last racing up alongside his schooner.
Which was why I snatched the ship’s wheel from Connor, wrenched it hard starboard and with a lurch sent the ship speeding towards the schooner. Nobody had expected that to happen. Not the crew of his ship. Not the men on the Aquila, not Connor or Robert—only me; and I’m not sure I knew until I did it, when any crew member who wasn’t hanging on to something was thrown violently to the side and the prow of the Aquila crunched into the schooner’s port side at an angle, breaching and splintering the hull. Perhaps it was rash of me. Perhaps I would owe Connor—and certainly Faulkner—an apology for the damage done to their ship.
But I couldn’t let him get away.
For a moment there was a stunned silence, just the sound of ship debris slapping against the ocean around, and the groan and creek of battered, distressed timber. The sails fluttered in a gentle breeze above us, but neither ship moved, as though both were immobilized by the shock of the impact.
And then, just as suddenly, a cry went up as the crew from both ships recovered their senses. I was ahead of Connor and had already dashed to the prow of the Aquila, swinging to the deck of Benjamin’s schooner, where I hit the wood with extended blade and killed the first crew member who raised a weapon towards me, stabbing him and swinging his writhing body overboard.
Spotting the hatch, I ran to it, hauled out a sailor trying to escape and punched the blade into his chest before taking the steps. With a final look at the devastation I’d caused, as the two huge ships locked together and began slowly to turn in the ocean, I slammed the hatch closed behind me.
From above came the thunder of feet on deck, the muted screams and gun blasts of battle and the thud of bodies hitting the wood. Below the deck, there was a strange, damp, almost eerie silence. But, from further along, I realized, came the slosh and drip that told me the schooner was taking on water. I grabbed a wooden strut as it suddenly listed and, somewhere, the drip of water became a constant flow. How long would it remain afloat? I wondered.
Meantime, I saw what Connor would soon discover: that the supplies we’d spent so long in pursuit of were non-existent—or on this ship anyway.
Just as I was absorbing this, I heard a noise and twisted to see Benjamin Church holding a pistol on me two-handed, squinting along its sights.
“Hello, Haytham,” he snarled, and pulled the trigger.
He was good. I knew that. It was why he pulled the trigger right away, to put me down while he still had the element of surprise; and why he didn’t aim directly for me but at a spot slightly to my right, because I’m a right-sided fighter and would naturally dive to my strongest side.
But of course I knew that because I’d trained him. And his shot smacked harmlessly into the hull when I dived, not to the right but to the left, rolled then came to my feet, pounced and was upon him before he could draw his sword. With a fistful of his shirt in my hand I snatched his pistol and tossed it away.
“We had a dream, Benjamin,” I snarled into his face, “a dream you sought to destroy. And for that, my fallen friend, you will be made to pay.”
I kneed him in the groin. When he doubled over, gasping with pain, I drove my fist into his abdomen then followed it up with a punch to the jaw that was hard enough to send two bloodied teeth skittering along the floor.
I let him drop, and he fell to where the wood was already wet, his face splashing into a wash of incoming seawater. Again the ship lurched but, for the moment, I didn’t care. When Benjamin tried to get to his hands and knees I lashed out with my boot, kicking whatever breath he had left out of him. Next I grabbed a length of rope and hauled him to his feet, shoved him against a barrel then wound it around him, securing him fast. His head dropped forward, trails of blood, spit and snot spooling slowly to the wood below. I stood back, took hold of his hair then looked into his eyes, drove a fist into his face and heard the crunch of his breaking nose then stood back, shaking the blood from my knuckles.