“Quiet, you bloody pirate!” An irate soldier responded by toeing sand into the wretched man’s face.
“Sir”—he cringed—“my crew and I have merely anchored to water and resupply.”
Then, for some reason known only to them, Stede Bonnet’s companions chose that moment to make their escape. Or try to make their escape. Hands still tied, they scrambled to their feet and began a lurching run towards the tree line where I hid, watching the scene. At the same time the soldiers, seeing their escape, raised their muskets.
Shot began zinging into the trees around me and I saw one of the merchants fall in a spray of blood and brain matter. Another went down heavily with a scream. Meanwhile, one of the soldiers had placed the muzzle of his rifle at Bonnet’s head.
“Give me one reason I shouldn’t vent your skull,” he snarled.
Poor old Bonnet, accused of being a pirate, about to lose his ship, and seconds away from a steel ball in the brain. He did the only thing a man in his position could do. He stammered. He spluttered. Possibly even wet himself.
“Um . . . um . . .”
I drew my cutlass and emerged from the tree line with the sun behind me. The soldier gaped. What I must have looked like as I stepped out of the glare of the sunshine with my robes flowing and cutlass swinging I don’t know, but it was enough to give the rifleman pause a second. A second that cost him his life.
I slashed upwards, opening his waistcoat and spilling his guts to the sand, spinning around in the same movement and dragging my blade across the throat of a soldier who stood nearby. Two men dead in the blink of an eye and a third about to join them as I ran him through with my cutlass. And he slid from my blade and died, writhing on the beach. I snatched my dagger from my belt with my other hand, jammed it into the eye of a fourth, and he fell back with a shocked yell, blood gushing from the hilt embedded in his face, staining the teeth of his screaming mouth.
The soldiers had all loosed their shot at the escaping merchants, and though they weren’t slow to reload, were still no match for a swordsman. That’s the thing with soldiers of the Crown. They rely too much on their muskets, great for frightening native women, not so effective at close quarters with a scrapper who learnt his trade in the taverns of Bristol.
The next man was still bringing his musket to bear when I dispatched him with two decisive strokes. The last of the soldiers was the first to get a second shot off. I heard it part the air by my nose and reacted with shock, hacking at his arm wildly until his musket dropped and he fell to his knees, pleading for his life with a raised hand until I silenced him with the point of my cutlass into his throat. He dropped with a gurgle, his blood flooded the sand around him, and I stood over his body with my shoulders heaving as I caught my breath, hot in my robes but knowing I had handled myself well. When Bonnet thanked me, saying, “By God’s grace, sir, you saved me. A profusion of thanks!” it wasn’t Edward Kenway the farm-boy from Bristol he was thanking. I had started again. I had become Duncan Walpole.
• • •
Stede Bonnet, it turned out, had not only lost his crew but had no skill for sailing. I had saved his ship from being commandeered by the English but to all intents and purposes I commandeered it myself. We had one thing in common, at least, as we were both heading for Havana. His ship was fast and he was talkative but good company, so we sailed together in what was a mutually beneficial partnership—for the time being at least.
As I steered I asked him about himself. What I found was a rich but fretful man, evidently attracted to more, shall we say, questionable ways of making even more money. For one thing, he constantly asked about pirates.
“Most hunt the Windward Passage between Cuba and Hispaniola,” I told him, suppressing a smile as I steered his schooner.
He added, “I shouldn’t worry about being waylaid by pirates, truth be told. My ship is small and I have nothing of immense value. Sugar-cane and its yields. Molasses, rum, that sort of thing.”
I laughed, thinking of my own crew. “There’s not a pirate living who’d turn his back on a keg of rum.”
Havana was a low port surrounded by green forest and tall palm trees, their fronds a lush green that wafted gently in the breeze, waving us in as our schooner sailed into port. In the busy town, white-stone buildings with red-slate roofs looked dilapidated and weather-beaten, bleached by the sun and blasted by the wind.
We moored and Bonnet set about his business helping to maintain amicable links with our former enemies the Spanish. He did it using that venerable diplomacy technique—selling them things.
He seemed to know the city, so rather than strike out alone I waited for his diplomacy mission to end, then agreed to accompany him to an inn. As we made our way there it occurred to me—the old me, the Edward Kenway–me—would have been looking forward to reaching the tavern. He’d have been getting thirsty.
But I had no urge to drink—and I mulled that over as we made our way through Havana, weaving through townsfolk who hurried along the sun-drenched streets, and watched by suspicious old folk who squinted at us from doorways. All I’d done was assume a different name and clothes, but it was as though I had been given a second chance at becoming . . . well . . . a man. As if Edward Kenway was a rehearsal from which I could learn my mistakes. Duncan Walpole would be the man I always wanted to be.
We reached the inn. The taverns of Edward’s past had been dark places with low ceilings and shadows that leapt and danced on the walls, where men hunched over tankards and spoke from the sides of their mouths. Here beneath the Cuban sun twinkled an outdoor tavern crowded with sailors who were leathery-faced and sinewy from months at sea, as well as portly merchants—friends of Bonnet, of course—and locals: men and children with handfuls of fruit for sale, women trying to sell themselves.
A dirty, drunken deck-hand gave me the evil eye as I took a seat while Bonnet disappeared to meet this contact. Perhaps this sailor didn’t like the look of me—after the Blaney business I was used to that kind of thing—or maybe he was a righteous man and didn’t approve of the fact that I swiped the ale of a sleeping drunk.
“Can I help you, friend?” I said over the lip of my beaker.
The jack-tar made a smacking sound with his mouth. “Fancy meeting a Taffy deep in Dago country,” he slurred. “I’m English meself, biding me time till the next war calls me to service.”
I curled my lip. “Lucky old King George, eh? Having a piss-pot like you flying his flag.”