He parried easily. One. Two. From going forward I was already being driven back, forced to defend messily and sloppily. Inexperienced swordsman? I wasn’t a swordsman at all. I might as well have been wielding a club or a cosh for all the skill I had with the blade. With a swish of his sword-point he opened a gash in my arm and first I felt warm blood wash down my biceps and soak my sleeve, before feeling the strength seem to leak out of my sword-arm. We weren’t fighting. Not anymore. He was playing with me. Playing with me before he killed me
“Show me your face,” I gasped, but he made no reply. The only sign he’d even heard was a slight smiling of the eyes behind the hood. The arc of his sword fooled my eyes and I was too slow—and not just a little too slow, but far too slow—to stop him from opening a second gash in my arm.
Again he struck. Again. I’ve since realized that he cut me with all the precision of a medical man, enough to hurt but not permanently injure me. Certainly enough to disarm me. In the end, I didn’t feel the sword drop from my fingertips. I just heard it hit the dirt and looked down to see it on the ground with blood from my wounded arm dripping onto the blade.
Perhaps I expected him to remove his hood. But he did not. Instead he levelled the point of his sword just below my chin and with his other hand indicated for me to drop to my knees.
“You don’t know me well enough if you think I’m going to meet my end on my knees, stranger,” I told him, feeling oddly calm in the face of defeat and death. “If it’s all the same to you, I’ll stay standing.”
He spoke in tones deep and flat, possibly disguised. “You’ll not meet your end tonight, Edward Kenway. More’s the pity. But I tell you this. Unless the Emperor sails with you on it tomorrow, this night is only the beginning for anyone bearing the Kenway name. Leave at first light and no more harm comes to your mother or father. But if that ship sails without you, they will suffer. You all will. Do I make myself clear?”
“Do I get to know the identity of my gracious enemies?” I asked.
“You do not. You know only that there are forces in this world more powerful than you could possibly comprehend, Edward Kenway. Tonight you have seen them in action. You have suffered at their hands. Let this be an end to it. Never return to these shores. Now, Edward Kenway, you will kneel.”
His sword came up and the hilt smashed into my temple.
When I woke up, I was on the Emperor.
At least I thought I was on the Emperor. I hoped so anyway. With my head throbbing, I pulled myself out of my hammock, put my boots to the deck and was sent flying forward.
My fall was broken—by my face. I lay groaning on the planks for a moment or so, wondering why I felt so drunk when I didn’t remember doing any actual drinking. Except, of course, I wasn’t drunk.
But if I wasn’t drunk, why was the floor moving? It tipped this way and that and I spent a moment or so waiting for it to settle until I realized that the constant rocking was exactly that. Constant. It wasn’t going to stop.
On unsteady feet that shuffled and danced in the sawdust I straightened, hands out like a man trying to negotiate a balancing beam. My body still hurt from the beating I’d taken but I was on the mend, my wounds a day or so old.
What hit me next was the air thick with a smell. No, not a smell. A stench.
Oh my days, it stank. A mix of shit, piss, sweat and sea-water. A smell I came to learn was unique to the below decks of a ship. Just as every butcher’s shop, every tavern has its own smell, so does every below decks. The frightening thing was how quickly you got used to it.
The smell was of men, and on the Emperor there were 150 of the blighters, who when they weren’t manning their positions, hanging from the rigging or crowded into the galleys, would sleep cuddled up to carriages on the gun-decks, or in hammocks much like the one I’d woken up in.
I could hear one of the crew, sniggering in the shadows as the ship lurched and I was thrown against a wooden support then just as violently slammed into a column opposite. Sea legs. That was what they called it. I had to get my sea legs.
“Is this the Emperor?” I said into the murk.
The creak of the ship. Like the smell and the sea legs it was something I’d get used to.
“Aye, you’re on the Emperor,” came the reply.
“I’m new on the ship,” I called into the darkness, clinging on for dear life.
There was a rasping chuckle. “You don’t say.”
“How far are we from land?”
“A day. You were brought on asleep or unconscious. Too much booze, I’d say.”
“Something like that,” I replied, still hanging on to the support for dear life. My mind went to the events of the last day or so but it was like worrying at an open wound. Too soon, too painful. I’d need to try and make sense of what had happened. I’d need to face the guilt, and I’d have letters to write. (Letters I wouldn’t have been able to write without Caroline’s tuition, I reminded myself, with a fresh feeling of regret.) But all that would have to wait until later.
From behind me came a grating, wrenching sound. I swung round and squinted in the half-light, and when my eyes adjusted I could see a capstan. From above I could hear feet and the raised voices of men at work on the deck above. The capstan groaned and creaked and turned.
“Heave,” came the shout from above. “Heave.” Despite everything the sound of it made me a wide-eyed little boy again.
I cast my gaze around. Either side were the rounded shapes of the carriage-guns. Their barrels shone dully in the dark. At the other end of the deck I could see where a rope ladder hung from a square of daylight. I headed there and climbed to the quarter-deck above.
I soon discovered how my ship-mates had earned their sea legs. Not only did they sport a different style of dress from men of the land—short jackets, checked shirts, long, canvas breeches—but they had a different style of walking too. Their entire bodies seemed to move with the ship, something that happened entirely by instinct. I spent my first couple of days on board being tossed from pillar to post by the heaving waves beneath us, and had to grow accustomed to the sound of laughter as I sprawled yet again to the deck, time after time. But soon, just as I got used to the smell below decks, the constant creak of the hull, and the sense that the whole sea was kept at bay by a few puny planks of wood and coats of caulking, I also learnt to move with the motion of the water and with the Emperor. Soon I too walked like every other man on board.