Then I knew what he was doing and could only watch in admiration and hope as he continued to do it, greasing the foot more and more until it was slippery enough to . . .
Try. He looked at me, silenced any encouragement before it even left my lips, then twisted and pulled at the same time.
He would have yelled in pain if he wasn’t concentrating on keeping so quiet, and his foot, when it came free of the leg-iron, was covered in a revolting mixture of blood and spit and oatmeal. But it was free and neither of us wanted to eat the oatmeal anyway.
He glanced back up the deck towards the ladder and both of us steeled ourselves against the appearance of a guard, then he began working at the other foot and was soon free. Crouched on the wood with his head cocked, he listened as footsteps from above us seemed to move towards the hatch, then, thankfully, moved away again.
There was a moment in which I wondered if he might simply leave me there. After all, we were strangers, he owed me nothing. Why should he waste time and endanger his own bid for freedom by helping me?
But I’d been about to let him eat the oatmeal and apparently that counted for something, because in the next instant, after a moment’s hesitation—perhaps he wondered himself about the wisdom of helping me—he scrambled over towards me, checked the shackles, then hurried over to an unseen section of the deck behind me, returning with keys.
His name was Adewalé he told me as he opened the shackles. I thanked him quietly, rubbing my ankles and whispering, “Now, what’s your plan, mate?”
“Steal a ship,” he said simply.
I liked the sound of that. First, though, I retrieved my robes and hidden blade and added a pair of leather braces and a leather jacket to my ensemble.
Meanwhile my new friend Adewalé was using the keys to release the prisoners. I snatched another set from a nail on the wall and joined him.
“There’s a catch to this favour,” I told the first man I came to, as my fingers worked the key in his restraints. “You’re sailing with me.”
“I’d follow you to hell for this, mate . . .”
Now there were more men standing on the deck and free of shackles than there were still restrained, and perhaps those above had heard something, because suddenly the hatch was flung open and the first of the guards thundered down the steps with his sword drawn.
“Hey,” he said, but “hey” turned out to be his final word. I’d already fitted my hidden blade (and had a moment’s reflection that though I had only been wearing it for such a short space of time, it still felt somehow familiar to me, as though I had been wearing it for years) and with a flick of my forearm engaged the blade, then stepped forward and introduced the blade to the guard, driving it deep into his sternum.
It wasn’t exactly stealthy or subtle. I stabbed him so hard that the blade punctured his back and pinned him to the steps until I wrenched him free. Now I saw the boots of a second soldier and the tip of his sword as reinforcements arrived. Back-handed, I sliced the blade just below his knees and he screamed and toppled, losing his sword and his balance, one of his lower legs cut to the bone and pumping blood to the deck as he joined his mate on the wood.
By now it was a full-scale mutiny, and the freed men ran to the piles of confiscated goods and reclaimed their own gear, arming themselves with cutlasses and pistols, pulling boots on. I saw squabbles breaking out—already!—over whose items were whose, but there was no time to play arbitrator. A clip around the ear was what it took and our new team was ready to go into action. Above us we heard the sounds of rushing feet and panicked shouting in Spanish as the guards prepared themselves for the uprising.
Just then the ship was suddenly rocked by what I knew was a gust of wind. Across the deck I caught Adewalé’s eye and he mouthed something to me. One word: “Hurricane.”
Again it was as though the ship had been rammed as a second gust of wind hit us. Now time was against us and the battle needed to be won fast. We had to take our own ship, because these winds, furious as they were, were nothing—nothing—compared to the force of a full-scale hurricane.
You could time its arrival by counting the delay between the first gusts. You could see the direction the hurricane was coming from. And if you were an experienced seaman, which I was by now, then you could use the hurricane to your advantage. So as long as we set sail soon, we could outrun any pursuers.
Yes, that was it. The terror of the hurricane had been replaced by the notion that we could make it work in our favour. Use the hurricane, outrun the Spanish. A few words in Adewalé’s ear and my new friend nodded and began to spread news of the plan among the rest of the men.
They would be expecting an uncoordinated, haphazard attack through the main hatch of the quarter-deck.
So let’s make them pay for underestimating us.
Directing some of the men to stay near the foot of the steps and make the noise of men preparing to attack, I led the rest to the stern, where we broke through into the sick bay, then stealthily climbed steps to the galley.
In the next instant we poured out onto the main deck, and sure enough the Spanish soldiers stood unawares, their backs turned and their muskets trained on the quarter-deck hatch.
They were careless idiots who had not only turned their backs on us but brought muskets to a sword-fight, and they paid for it with steel in their guts and across their throats. For a moment the quarter-deck was a battlefield as we ruthlessly pressed home the advantage our surprise attack gave us, until at our feet lay dead or dying Spaniards, while the last of them threw themselves overboard in panic, and we stood and caught our breath.
Though the sails were furled, the ship rocked as it was punched by another gust of wind. The hurricane would be upon us any minute. From other ships along the harbour belonging to the treasure fleet, we saw soldiers handing out pikes and muskets as they began to prepare themselves for our attack.
We needed a faster ship and Adewalé had his eye on one, already leading a group of our men across the gang-board and to the quay. Soldiers on the harbour died by their blades. There was a crack of muskets and some of our men fell, but already we were rushing the next galleon beside us, a beautiful-looking ship—the ship I was soon to make my own.
Then we were up on it, just as the sky darkened, a suitable backdrop for the battle and a terrifying augury of what was to come.
Wind whipped at us, growing stronger, hammering us in repeated gusts. You could see the Spanish soldiers were in disarray, as terrified of the approaching storm as they were of the escaped prisoners, unable to avoid the onslaught of either.