At the first crash-bang I’d raised my arms to protect myself. Luckily. I felt shards of splintered wood that would otherwise have punctured my face and eyes embed themselves into my arm, and the force was enough to send me staggering back, tripping and falling.
They’d used bar-shot. Big iron bars that would blast a hole in virtually anything provided the distance was close enough. They’d done their job. The English had no interest in boarding us. As pirates we would inflict as little damage upon our target as possible. Our aim was to board and loot, over a period of days if needs be. It was difficult to loot a sinking ship. But the English—or this particular command, at least—either they knew we had no treasure aboard or they didn’t care—they simply wanted to destroy us and they were doing a bloody good job of it.
I dragged myself to my feet, felt something warm running down my arm and looked to see blood from a splinter blob to the planks of the deck. With a grimace I reached to tear the wood from my arm and tossed it to the deck, barely registering the pain as I squinted through a fog of powder-smoke and lashing weather.
A cheer went up from the crew of the English frigate as she churned past our starboard side. There was the pop and fizz of musket and flint-lock-pistol shot. Stink-pots and grenadoes came sailing over, exploding on deck and adding to the chaos, the damage, and the choking smoke that hung over us like a death shroud. The stink-pots in particular let out a vicious sulphur gas that sent men to their knees, making the air so dense and black that it became difficult to see, to judge distance.
Even so, I saw him, the hooded figure who stood on their forecastle deck. His arms were folded, and he stood still in his robes, his entire demeanour emanating unconcern at the events that were unfolding around him. I could tell all this from his posture and eyes, which gleamed from beneath the cowl of his robes. Eyes that, for a second, were fixed on me.
Then our attackers were swallowed up by smoke. A ghost ship amid a fog of powder belch, sizzling rain and choking stink-pot fumes.
All around me was the sound of shattering wood and screaming men. The dead were everywhere, littering torn planks awash with their blood. Through a gash in the main deck I saw water on the decks below, and from above heard the complaint of wood and the tearing of the shroud. I looked up to see our mainsail was half-destroyed by chain-shot. A dead lookout with most of his head shorn away hung by his feet from the crow’s nest and men were already scaling the rat-lines to try and cut the broken mast free, but they were too late. She was already listing, wallowing in the water like a fat woman taking a bath.
At last, enough of the smoke cleared to see that the British frigate was coming round, describing a long circle in order to use its starboard guns. But then she ran into a spot of bad luck. Before the ship could be brought to bear, the same wind that had dispersed the smoke dropped, and her plump sails flattened and she slowed. We had been given our second chance.
“Man the guns!” I shouted.
Those members of our crew still on their feet were scrambling to the mounted guns. I manned a swivel gun and we delivered a broadside that the attacking frigate could do nothing about, our shot doing almost as much damage to them as they had to us. It was our turn to cheer. Defeat had turned, if not quite to victory, then at least to a lucky escape. Perhaps there were those of us who were even wondering what treasures might be on board the British vessel, and I saw one or two of our men, the optimistic few, with boarding hooks, axes and marlinspikes, ready to lash the ship close and take them man-on-man.
Their plans were dashed by what happened next.
“The magazine,” came the cry.
“She’s going up.”
The news was followed by screams and as I looked from my post at the swivel gun towards the bow, I saw flames around the breach in the hull. Meanwhile, from the stern came the cries of the captain, while on the poop-deck of the ship opposite, the man in the robes leapt into action. Literally. He unfolded his arms and in one short jump was on the rail of the deck, then in the next moment had jumped across.
For a moment the impression I had of him in the air was like an eagle, his robes spread out behind him, his arms outstretched like wings.
Next I saw Captain Bramah fall. Crouched over him, the hooded man’s arm pulled back and a hidden blade sprang from within his sleeve.
That blade. I was transfixed by it for a second. The flames from the burning deck made it alive. And then the hooded man drove it deep into Captain Bramah.
I stood and stared, my own cutlass in my hand. From behind I vaguely heard the cries of the crew as they tried in vain to stop the fire spreading to the magazine.
It will go up, I thought distractedly, envisioning the barrels of gunpowder stored there. The magazine will explode. The English ship was close enough so that the explosion would surely blast a hole in the hull of both ships. All of this I knew, but only as distant, distracted thoughts. I was spellbound by the hooded man at work. Mesmerized by this agent of death, who had ignored the carnage around him by biding his time and waiting to strike.
The kill was over, Captain Bramah dead. The assassin looked up from the dead body of the captain, and once again our eyes met, only this time something flared within his features and in the next instant he had bounded to his feet, a single lithe jump that took him over the corpse, and he was bearing down upon me.
I raised my cutlass, determined not to go easily into the great unknown. Then from the stern—from the magazine, where our men had obviously failed to douse the fire whose fingers had found the stores of gunpowder—came a great explosion.
I was blasted off the deck, flung in the air and finding a moment of perfect peace, not knowing whether I was alive or dead, whether I still had all of my limbs and in that moment not caring anyway. I didn’t know where I would come to rest: whether I’d slam to the deck of a ship and break my back or land impaled on a snapped mast or be tossed into the eye of the magazine inferno.
Or do what I did, which was slap into the sea.
Maybe alive, maybe dead, maybe conscious, maybe not. Either way I seemed to drift not far below the surface, watching the sea above, a shifting mottle of blacks, greys and the flaming orange of burning ships. Past me sank dead bodies, eyes wide open as though surprised in death. They discoloured the water in which they sank and trailed guts and stringy sinew string like tentacles. I saw a smashed mizen-mast twirling in the water, bodies snared in rigging dragged to the depths.
I thought of Caroline. Of my father. Then of my adventures on the Emperor. I thought about Nassau, where there was only one law: pirate law. And, of course, I thought about how I was mentored from privateer to pirate by Blackbeard—Edward Thatch.