“Hey,” I shouted, as much to try and wake Mother and Father as to frighten off our attackers.
“Hey,” I yelled again.
A torch arced through the air, twirling end over end, leaving an orange trail in the night sky before landing in a shower of sparks on the thatch of our home. It was dry—tinder dry. We tried to keep it doused in the summer because the risk of fire was so great, but there was always something more important to do and at a guess it hadn’t been done for a week because it went up with a whoompf.
I saw more figures, three, perhaps four. Just as I came into the yard and pulled up, a shape flew at me from the side, hands grabbed my tunic and I was dragged from the back of my horse.
The breath was driven from me as I thumped hard to the ground. Nearby were rocks for a stone wall. Weapons. Then above me loomed a figure that blocked out the moon, hooded, like the others. Before I could react he stooped and I caught a brief impression of the hood fabric pulsing at his mouth as he breathed hard; and then his fist smashed into my face. I twisted and his second blow landed on my neck. Beside him appeared another figure, and I saw a glint of steel, knew I was powerless to do anything and prepared to die. But the first man stopped the new arrival with a simple barked, “No,” and I was saved from the blade at least, but not from the beating, and a boot in my midriff doubled me up.
That boot—I recognized that boot.
Again it came, again, until at last it stopped and my attacker spat and ran off. My hands went to my wounded belly and I rolled onto my front and coughed, the blackness threatening to engulf me. Maybe I’d let it. The idea of sinking into oblivion seemed tempting. Let unconsciousness take the pain. Deliver me into the future.
The sound of running feet as my attackers escaped. Some indistinct shouting. The cries of the disturbed ewes.
But no. I was still alive, wasn’t I? About to kiss steel I’d been given a second chance and that was too good a chance to pass up. I had my parents to save and even then I knew that I was going to make these people pay. The owner of those boots would regret not killing me when he had the chance. Of that I was sure.
I pulled myself up. Smoke drifted across the yard like a bank of incoming fog. One of the barns was already alight. The house too. I needed to wake them, needed to wake my mother and father.
The dirt around me was bathed in the orange glow of the fire. As I stood I was aware of horses’ hooves and swung about to see several riders retreating—riding away from the farmhouse, their job done, the place well alight by then. I snatched up a rock and considered hurling it at one of the riders, but there were more important matters to worry about, and with a grunt that was part effort and part pain, I launched the rock at the top window of the farmhouse.
My aim was true and I prayed it would be enough to rouse my parents. The smoke was thick in the yard, the roar of the flames like an escaped hell. Ewes were screaming in the barns as they burned alive.
At the door they appeared: Father battling his way out of the flames with Mother in his arms. His face was set, his eyes blank. All he could think about was making sure she was safe. After he’d taken Mother out of the reach of the flames and laid her carefully down in the yard near where I stood, he straightened and like me gaped helplessly at the burning building. We hurried over to the barn, where the screams of the ewes had died down, our livestock, Father’s livelihood, gone. Then, his face hot and glowing in the light of the flames, my father did something I’d never seen. He began to cry.
“Father . . .” I reached for him, and he pulled his shoulder away with an angry shrug, and when he turned to me, his face blackened with smoke and streaked by tears he shook with restrained violence, as though it was taking every ounce of his self-control to stop himself from lashing out. From lashing out at me.
“Poison. That’s what you are,” he said through clenched teeth, “poison. The ruin of our lives.”
“Father . . .”
“Get out of here,” he spat. “Get out of here. I never want to see you again.”
Mother stirred as though she was about to protest, and rather than face more upset—rather than be the cause of more upset—I mounted my horse and left.
I flew through the night with heartbreak and fury my companions, riding the highway into town and stopping at the Auld Shillelagh, where all this had begun. I staggered inside, one arm still clutching my hurt chest, face throbbing from the beating.
Conversation in the tavern died down. I had their attention.
“I’m looking for Tom Cobleigh and his weasel son,” I managed, breathing hard, glaring at them from beneath my brow. “Have they been in here?”
Backs were turned to me. Shoulders hunched.
“We’ll not have any trouble in here,” said Jack, the landlord, from behind the bar. “We’ve had enough trouble from you to last us a lifetime, thank you very much, Edward Kenway.” He pronounced “thank you very much” as though it were all one word. Thankyouverymuch.
“You know the full meaning of trouble if you’re sheltering the Cobleighs,” I warned, and I strode to the bar, where he reached for something I knew to be there, a sword that hung on a nail out of sight. I got there first, stretched with a movement that sent the pain in my stomach off, but grabbed it and snatched it from its scabbard in one swift movement.
It all happened too quickly for Jack to react. One second he’d been considering reaching for the sword, the next instant that very same sword was being held to his throat, thankyouverymuch.
The light in the inn was low. A fire flickered in the grate, dark shadows pranced on the walls and drinkers regarded me with narrowed, watchful eyes.
“Now tell me,” I said, angling the sword at Jack’s throat, making him wince, “have the Cobleighs been in here tonight?”
“Weren’t you supposed to be leaving on the Emperor tonight?”
It wasn’t Jack; it was somebody else who spoke. Someone I couldn’t see in the gloom. I didn’t recognize the voice.
“Aye, well my plans changed and it’s lucky they did; otherwise, my mother and father would have burned in their beds.” My voice rose. “Is that what you wanted, all of you? Because that’s what would have happened. Did you know about this?”
You could have heard a pin drop in that tavern. From the darkness they regarded me: the eyes of men I’d drunk and fought with, women I’d taken to bed. They kept their secrets. They would continue to keep them.