The rest of the deck had fallen silent; each man left alive was looking over to where Blaney and I stood between the invaders and the entrance to the captain’s cabin. It felt as though we were the only men alive.
“Shall I finish him, sir?” said Blaney. Before I could react the point of his sword was at my throat. Again he grinned.
The crowd of men seemed to part around Edward Thatch as he stepped forward.
“Now”—he waved at Blaney with his cutlass, which still dripped with the blood of our crew—“why would you be calling me, ‘sir,’ lad?”
The point of Blaney’s sword tickled my throat. “I hope to join you, sir,” he replied, “and prove my loyalty to you.”
Thatch turned his attention to me. “And you, young ’un, what did you have in mind, besides dying at your ship-mate’s sword, that is? Would you like to join my crew as a privateer or die a pirate, either at the hands of your crewmate here, or back home in Blighty?”
“I never wanted to be a pirate, sir,” I said quickly. (Stop yer grinning.) “I merely wanted to earn some money for my wife, sir, honest money to take back to Bristol.”
(A Bristol from which I was banished and a wife I was prevented from seeing. But I decided not to bother Thatch with the little details.)
“Aye,” laughed Thatch, and threw out an arm to indicate the mass of captured men behind him, “and I suppose I could say this for every one of your crew left alive. Every man will swear he never intended a career in piracy. Ordered to do it by the captain, they’ll say. Forced into it against their will.”
“He ruled with a rod of iron, sir,” I said. “Any man who said as much would be telling you the truth.”
“How did your captain manage to persuade you to enter into this act of piracy, pray tell?” demanded Thatch.
“By telling us we would soon be pirates anyway, sir, when a treaty was signed.”
“Well he’s right most likely”—Thatch sighed thoughtfully—“no denying it. Still, that’s no excuse.” He grinned. “Not while I remain a privateer that is, sworn to protect and assist Her Majesty’s Navy, which includes watching over the likes of the Amazon Galley. Now—you’re not a swordsman, are you, boy?”
I shook my head no.
Thatch chuckled. “Aye, that is apparent. Didn’t stop you throwing yourself at this man here though, did it? Knowing that you would meet your end at the point of his sword. Why was that then?”
I bristled. “Blaney had turned traitor, sir, I saw red.”
Thatch jammed the point of his cutlass to the deck, rested both hands on the hilt and looked from me to Blaney, who had added wariness to his usual expression of angry incomprehension. I knew how he felt. It was impossible to say from Thatch’s demeanour where his sympathies lay. He simply looked from me to Blaney, then back again. From me to Blaney, then back again.
“I have an idea,” he roared at last, and every man on the deck seemed to relax at once. “Let’s settle this with a duel. What do you say, lads?”
Like a set of scales, the crew’s spirits rose as mine sank. I had barely used a blade. Blaney, on the other hand, was an experienced swordsman. Settling the matter would be the work of a heartbeat for him.
Thatch chuckled. “Ah, but not with swords, lads, because we’ve already seen how this one here has certain skills with the blade. No, I suggest a straight fight. No weapons, not even knives, does that suit you, boy?”
I nodded yes, thinking what would suit me most was no fight at all, but a straight fight was the best I could hope for.
“Good.” Thatch clapped his hands and his sword shuddered in the wood. “Then let us begin. Come on, lads, form a ring, let these two gentlemen get to it.”
The year was 1713, and I was about to die, I was sure of it.
Thinking about it—that was nine years ago, wasn’t it? It would have been the year you were born.
“Then let us begin,” Thatch commanded.
Men had climbed the rigging and clung to the masts. Men were in the rat-lines, on the rails and the top decks of all three ships—every man-jack of them craning to get a better view. Playing to the crowd, Blaney stripped off his shirt so that he was down to his breeches. Conscious of my puny torso, I did the same. Then we dropped our elbows, raised our fists, eyed each other up.
My opponent grinned behind raised forearms—his fists were as big as hams and twice as hard. His knuckles like statues’ noses. No, this probably wasn’t quite the sword fight Blaney wanted, but it was the next best thing. The chance to pulverize me with the captain’s consent. To beat me to death without risking the taste of a cat-o’-nine-tails.
From the decks and rigging came the shouts of the crew keen to witness a good bout. By which I mean a bloody bout. Just from the catcalls it was difficult to make out if they had a favourite, but I put myself in their position: what would I want to see if I were them? I’d want to see sport.
So let’s give it to them. I brought my own fists up and what I thought about was how Blaney had been a huge pain in the arse from the moment I had set foot on board. Nobody else. Just him. This thick-as-pigshit cretin. All my time on ship I’d spent dodging Blaney and wondering why he hated me because I wasn’t snot-nosed and arrogant then, not like I’d been back home. Life on board had tamed that side of me. I dare say I’d grown up a bit. What I’m saying is, he had no real reason to hate me.
Right then it came to me the reason why. He hated me because. Just because. If I hadn’t been around to hate, he would have found someone else to fill my shoes. One of the cabin boys, perhaps, one of the black sailors. He just liked hating.
And for that I hated him in return, and I channelled that feeling, that hate. Perplexed at his hostility? I turned it into hate. Staying out of his way day after day? I turned it into hate. Having to look at his stupid, thick face day after day? Turned it into hate.
Because of that, the first strike was mine. I stepped in and it seemed to explode out of me, using my speed and my size to my advantage, ducking beneath his protecting fists and smashing him in the solar plexus. He let out an oof and staggered back, the surprise more than the pain making him drop his guard, enough for me to dance quickly to my left and drive forward with my left fist, finding a spot above his right eye that, just for one delicious second, I thought might have been good enough to finish him off.
A roar of approval and blood-lust from the men. It had been a good punch, enough to open a cut that began to leak a steady stream of blood down his face. But no, it wasn’t enough to stop him for good. Instead, the look of angry incomprehension he always wore became even more uncomprehending. Even angrier. I’d landed two punches, he precisely none. He hadn’t even moved from his spot.