The battle was bloody and vicious, but over quickly and the galleon was ours. For a moment I wondered if Adewalé would want to assume command; indeed he had every right to do so—this man had not only set me free but led the charge that helped win us the boat. If he did decide to captain his own ship, I would have to respect that, find my own command and go my own way.
But no. Adewalé wanted to sail with me as my quartermaster.
I was more than grateful. Not only that he was willing to serve with me, but that he chose not to take his skills elsewhere. In Adewalé I had a loyal quartermaster, a man who would never rise up against me in mutiny, provided I was a just and fair captain.
I knew that then, at the beginning of our friendship, just as I know it now with all those years of comradeship between us.
(Ah, but The Observatory. The Observatory came between us.)
We set sail just as the masts unfurled and the first tendrils of the coming storm fattened our sails. Cross-winds battered us as we left the harbour and I glanced behind from my place at the tiller to see the remaining ships of the treasure fleet being assaulted by wind and rain. At first their masts swung crazily from side to side like uncontrolled pendulums, then they were clashing as the storm hit. Without ready sails they were sitting ducks and it gladdened my heart to see them knocked into matchwood by the arriving hurricane.
The air seemed to grow colder and colder around us. Above I saw clouds gathering, scudding fast across the sky and blocking out the sun. Next we were lashed with wind and rain and sea-spray. Around us the waves seemed to grow and grow, towering mountains of water with foaming peaks, every one of them about to drown us, tossing us from one huge canyon of sea to another.
The poultry were washed overboard. Men hung on to cabin doors. I heard screams as unlucky deck-hands were snatched off the ship. The galley fire was extinguished. All hatches and cabin doors battened down. Only the bravest and most skilful men dared scale the rat-lines to try and manage the canvas.
The foremast snapped and I feared for the mainmast and mizzen, but they held, thank God, and I gave silent praise for this fast, plucky ship that had been brought to us by fate.
The sky was a patchwork of black cloud that every now and then parted to allow rays of sunshine through, as if the sun were being kept prisoner behind them; as though the weather was taunting us. Still we kept going, with three men at the tiller and men hanging on to the rigging as though trying to fly a huge, abominable kite, desperately trying to keep us ahead of the storm. To slow down would be to surrender to it. To surrender to it would be to die.
But we didn’t die, not that day. Behind us the rest of the treasure fleet was smashed in port, but just the one ship containing us freed prisoners managed to escape and the men we had—a skeleton crew—pledged their allegiance to me and Adewalé and agreed with my proposal that we set sail immediately for Nassau. At last, I was going back to Nassau, to see Edward and Benjamin, and rejoin the republic of pirates I had missed so much.
I was looking forward to showing them my ship. My new ship. I christened it the Jackdaw.
“You’ve named your new brig after a bird?”
Any other man and I would have drawn my pistol or perhaps engaged my hidden blade and made him eat his words. But this was Edward Thatch. Not Blackbeard yet, oh no. He had yet to grow the face fur, which would give him his more famous alias, but he still had all that braggadocio that was as much his trade-mark as his plaited beard and the lit fuses he would wear in it.
Benjamin was there too. He sat with Edward beneath the sailcloth awnings of The Old Avery, a tavern on the hill overlooking the harbour, one of my very favourite places in the world and my very first port of call on entering Nassau—a Nassau I was pleased to see had hardly changed: the stretch of purest blue ocean across the harbour, the captured ships that littered the shores, English flags flying from their masts, the palms, the shanty houses. The huge Fort Nassau towered above us, its death’s-head flag flapping in the easterly breeze. I tell a lie. It had changed. It was busier than it had been before. Some nine hundred men and women now made it their base, I discovered, seven hundred of them pirates.
Edward and Benjamin—planning raids and drinking, drinking and planning raids, six of one, half a dozen of the other.
Nearby was another pirate I recognized as James Kidd, who sat by himself. Some said he was the son of William Kidd. But for now my attention went to my old mates, who both rose to greet me. Here, there were none of the formalities, the insistence on politeness and decorum that shackles the rest of society. No, I was given a full, proper pirate greeting, embraced in huge bear-hugs by Benjamin and Edward, the pirate scourges of the Bahamas, but really soft old bears, with grateful tears in their eyes to see an old friend.
“By God, you’re a sight for salty eyes,” said Benjamin. “Come you in and have a drink.”
Edward gave Adewalé a look. “Ahoy, Kenway. Who’s this?”
“Adewalé, the Jackdaw’s quartermaster.”
That was when Edward made his crack about the Jackdaw’s name. Neither of them had yet made mention of the robes I wore, but perhaps I had that pleasure to come. Certainly there was a moment, after the greeting, when they both gave me long, hard looks and I wondered whether those looks were as much to gawp at my clothes as to see the change in me, because the fact was that I had been but a boy when I first met them, but I had grown from a feckless, arrogant teenager, an errant son, a love-lorn but unreliable husband into something else—a man scarred and made hard by battle, who was not quite so careless with his feelings, not so liberal with his emotions, a cold man in many respects, a man whose true passions were buried deep.
Perhaps they saw that, my two old friends. Perhaps they took note of that hardening of boy to a man.
I was looking for men to crew my ship, I told them.
“Well,” said Edward, “there’s scores of capable men about, but use caution. A shipload of the king’s sailors showed up a fortnight back, causing trouble and knocking about like they own the place.”
I didn’t like the sound of that. Was it Woodes Rogers’s work? Had he sent out an advance party? Or was there another explanation? The Templars. Looking for me, maybe? Looking for something else? The stakes were high then. I should know. I’d done more than my fair share to increase them.
While recruiting more men for my ship, I learned a little more about the presence of the English in the Bahamas. Men that Adewalé and I spoke to talked of seeing soldiers prancing round in the king’s colours. The British wanted us out; well of course they did, we were a thorn in His Majesty’s side, a dirty great stain on the Red Ensign, but it felt as though there was, if anything, an increase in British interest. So it was that when I next met Edward, Ben and, joining us, James Kidd in The Old Avery, I was sure to speak out of earshot and extra wary of unfamiliar faces.