The Last Chapter of Book One
The night is dark, clouded, and in the darkness there is little more than silence: an occasional creak of wood and rope, now and then a pop as a corner of canvas flaps with a capricious breath of wind, sometimes a cough. Through the silence, something moves; it is large, and solid, and would bring notice if there were any nearby to sense its passage who were not already a part of it.
Then in the distance, like the opening of a sleeping eye, dawn begins. The growing light shows first the waves, like wrinkles in the blue-green skin of the world; and then the white sails appear, as if they catch and gather in the light as they do the wind, filling with the sun’s first gentle rays. As the light grows, the silent presence becomes the ship that rides over and breaks through the waves, now, as the breeze rises and sends the drifting water against the ship’s smooth hull, as if the dawn had woken the very air, the great ocean itself.
When the sun’s edge breaks the horizon, off the starboard bow, the man standing at the wheel squints and looks away. His eyes flash over the sails, which are buckling and heaving: the dawn has brought a new wind from a new quarter of the sky. The ships begins to slow, and its graceful motion becomes choppy – where it was a great owl, gliding through the still, dark air, now it is a jackrabbit, jouncing, jolting across the ground. The man’s eyes flick to the ladder that leads down to the next lower deck, and his lips thin. He begins to turn the wheel, then shakes his head and stills his hands. He coughs – louder than he needs to, likely.
A door opens on that lower deck, and a man steps out. He is tall: he must duck to pass through the door, and then he stands with broad shoulders and a straight back. Black hair blows on the wind, and blue-green eyes, the same color as the water below, squint in the sunlight which dazzles the ocean waves. His gaze goes to the sails, and he frowns; he crosses to the ladder and climbs rapidly to the top deck, where the man stands at the wheel, a relieved look on his face as the tall man appears. The tall man says, “Change course with the wind, Salty – three points north.”
“Three points north, aye, Captain,” the man at the wheel says, satisfaction in his voice. Even as he speaks, he is already turning the wheel to the left, and the ship shifts with a creak and a groan, and then slides into place like a lock into its groove, the sails snapping taut once more, the waves now rolling under the ship instead of crashing across it. The ship picks up speed and again glides like a bird in flight. The Captain claps the man at the wheel on the shoulder, and then stretches and yawns. He walks the ship, inspecting everything he can see and touch, now frowning, now nodding.
More men emerge as the dawn light strengthens and paints the sky bright pink and yellow and blue; the Captain hails some and orders them to the lines, to adjust ropes that have stretched and slipped, knots that have loosened in the night. Puffs of smoke begin to emerge from a small pipe, as the stove in the galley below heats up for breakfast. The man at the wheel is relieved; he hands over control of the ship with a comment on the new heading, and then he turns an hourglass set into the side of the wheel’s post just as the sand runs out. He stretches, shaking and flexing his fingers, which are scarred and gnarled though still strong, and then goes below, to the galley and food.
The Captain, having looked over the whole of his domain, now stands at the starboard rail, the bright sun warm on his face and the ocean breeze cool. He looks out at the water, the sky, the line of the horizon. Then he frowns. His body turns, his shoulders squaring, and his head leans forward as his eyes narrow. From a pouch at his belt he removes a brass tube, which he holds up to one eye.
In the lens he sees a scrap of white.
He watches it, moving only with the roll of the ship over the waves, for several minutes. He exchanges greetings with men who pass by on their tasks, several going to or coming from the head at the bow of the ship; some lowering buckets on ropes into the water, bringing them up full and splashing water across the deck, others re-coiling ropes that have shifted in the night or polishing salt spray off of metal surfaces.
The Captain lowers the glass. His expression is troubled. He begins to turn away, and then stops and looks back at the white scrap, which has grown somewhat larger, more definite, though still tiny. He glances at the men, then the scrap. Then his features firm, smoothing slightly: a decision is made. He raises his voice. “All hands on deck!” he calls, his tone strong but not urgent.
The call is repeated below, and within minutes, the yawning, bleary-eyed man who had been behind the wheel is the last to emerge. They have seen the Captain standing at the rail, and are gathered around him. The Captain looks them over, nods, and then turns and points. “Look there,” he says. “Lynch – get above. Take the glass.” He holds the brass tube out to a slender youth, who takes it and tucks it behind the wide leather belt about his middle. The youth jogs to a rope ladder and scrambles up, into the rigging above.
The other men line the rail and squint into the bright morning air. “‘At’s a sail, sure,” one says, and the others nod and mutter.
“There be some sailin’ ships in these waters, bain’t there?” asks a thin man with delicate features.
“Aye,” the Captain says. “But not with square sails. Lynch!”
The youth has reached the top cross-bar of the main mast, and now sits astride it and puts the glass to his eye, holding the mast with his other hand. He finds the white object on the horizon and frowns at it, his brows lowering as he strains to see it clearly, struggling to keep the object in view despite the motion of the ship, greatly exaggerated here, forty feet above the deck. Then he pales.
Below, another man, hard-eyed and bearded, mutters, “We be th’ only ship wi’ square sails – th’ only one for a hunnerd years. That’n can’t be such.” Another man nods, but he is frowning as he does so.
Then the bearded man’s eyes widen. “Oh, Christ in Heaven, no – “
The young man on the mast interrupts and anticipates him. “Captain!” he shouts, his voice breaking high and shrill. “It’s the Sea-Cat!“
There is a brief moment of utter, shocked silence, and then a groan goes through the men. The Captain looks up and shouts, “Are ye sure? At this distance?”
“I stared at that bastard for two months, Captain,” the youth retorts. “Aye, I’m sure. It’s him. I can see the Scourged Lady on the bow.”
“And he’s closing on us,” one of the men on deck mutters. Indeed, the scrap of white has become a spot, now visible to all, and obviously square. The mutters rise, and feet begin shifting, hands clenching into fists around the hilts of swords and the butts of pistols.
The Captain wheels on them, his eyes bright, his expression determined, fearless. He speaks in a calm voice, just above quiet. “All right. He’s three, four miles off, still, and we’re running slow. O’Grady – go below and finish the breakfast, then douse the cookfire. We’ll need to eat well, so double rations. Desmond – can ye take the wheel? I need Ian on the lines.”
A man rubs at his shoulder, shrugging his right arm, testing it against pain. “Aye, Captain. I think ’tis healed enough.”
The Captain nods, then raises his voice. “All right! Raise all topsails! All canvas up! Desmond, go eat now, then on the wheel – follow the wind, wheresoever it goes, aye? We’ll sort out our course later. For now – speed! MacTeigue, with me. Go, ye sea-dogs! Hoist the sails!”
Men burst into action. Three scramble up the rope ladder to join Lynch above, where they stretch themselves out along the top yardarms, poles no thicker than a tree branch, their legs curled about to hold them up as they yank at knotted ropes. The knots loose, and sails unfurl; the men slide down the masts to the lower crossbars, and, grabbing at ropes attached to the corners of the flapping sails, tie them quickly to the crossbars. The sails fill, and the ship accelerates. The mast-climbers return to the deck, where a conversation has been rattling quickly back and forth between the Captain and MacTeigue, with much pointing of fingers and shaking of heads. The Captain finally curses and says, “Load them all anyway.” He shouts for his glass, which the descended Lynch jumps to put into his hand before going below to gobble oat porridge and sliced ham, with a cup of ale to fortify himself.
The Captain moves to the aft rail on the highest deck, where the wheel is, and looks out at the square sail on the horizon. He puts one eye to the spyglass, points the glass at the ship, and then stands there, unmoving but for the rocking of the ship beneath him, for half a glass – fifteen minutes. Behind him his men are finishing their barely-warmed food and are readying weapons, loading guns, sharpening blades, arming the ship’s cannons – twenty-four in total, twelve on each side, split evenly between two decks.
The Captain lowers his glass with a curse, rubbing at his watering eyes. “He’s still gaining on us,” he mutters. He strikes the rail with the heel of his hand. “Gods damn ye, Hobbes, ye son of the Devil’s whores.” He turns and looks at the sails above him, which are bellied full of wind; the man Desmond is on the wheel, now, a hunk of ham in one fist, and he has lined the ship up perfectly with the wind. “MacTeigue! O’Gallows! To me!” the Captain roars.
MacTeigue leaves the men loading the cannons, and O’Gallows, a tall, square-jawed fellow with golden blonde hair and sparkling blue eyes, ceases his harangue of two sailors who had apparently tied a poor knot in a line, and joins MacTeigue and the Captain on the poop deck.
“He’s faster,” the Captain says. “We cannot run this time.”
O’Gallows curses and looks back at the ship, which has indeed grown larger, the shape of her sails, her dark hull, a lighter smudge of a figurehead at the bow, all clear now against the blue sky. “If we turn now, he’ll match us,” he says. “We can’t trade broadsides with the Sea-Cat. She has more iron.”
“We can’t fight man-to-man,” MacTeigue says. “We don’t have enough men.”
“We need to cross her bow as she’s coming,” O’Gallows replies. “She’s got no fore-chasers. We can give her our broadside and then turn and run. If we hole her at the water, or break her mast, we’ll be faster, then.”
“But he’ll turn when we turn, and then it’s broadsides for all – or else he’ll follow close and grapple to our after rail, and board us,” MacTeigue says.
Suddenly, the Captain, who has been hunched over with his thumbs tucked into his sash, straightens and grins. “Not if we turn fast enough,” he says. “Go bring me the torn sail and some line, and two men to help ye,” he orders O’Gallows, who moves off with a puzzled frown. The captain turns to MacTeigue, after glancing at the sails, and then over his shoulder at the pursuing ship. “Right – starboard side first. Stagger the broadside – fire three above and three below, then shift the crews and fire the other three. Then have them cross to the port side and be ready to do the same again.”
MacTeigue is wide-eyed, mouth agape. “Nate, how, by Lucifer, are we to fire both sides at the same target? Christ’s bones, how will we manage to fire the one?”
The Captain slaps him on the shoulder. “Don’t worry, cousin. The Grace will wheel and dance like a falcon in flight, I promise ye. Now go – ready the guns! Starboard first!”
As MacTeigue races off, the Captain shouts. “Kelly! We’ll be needing the sharpshooters – ready the rifles at the mainmast!” A large, one-eyed man nods and goes below, to the armory beneath the main deck. Just as he disappears, O’Gallows struggles up the steep staircase – almost a ladder – on the opposite side of the deck, with a large coil of rope draped over his shoulders. Behind him come two men lugging a long roll of canvas. They go towards the poop deck, and the Captain comes down to meet them on the main deck. He explains their orders, pointing and miming with his hands; O’Gallows’s puzzled frown turns into a mischievous grin, and he and the other two draw knives and begin cutting slits in the canvas, threading the rope through and tying knots.
The Captain returns to the aft rail and watches as the pursuing ship grows, men now visible aboard her. As he watches, the grin slides off of his face, and his eyes grow first worried, then determined. He makes a fist, and pounds it down on the rail, once, twice, three times. He strides away, barking orders as he goes.
She is close, now. She has clearly been battered and then repaired – there are lighter-colored boards, new wood not yet stained the dark gray of ocean-going vessels, in her hull, and her mainmast is taller, now, and raked, or tilted back towards the rear of the ship; the mainmast is also gaff-rigged, now, which it was not before – perhaps that is what has gained her more speed. They had been evenly matched in their last encounter, when the Sea-Cat had chased the Grace across the Atlantic – and, apparently, across three centuries, as well; but now the English ship is the faster of the two. She still has no cannon in her bow, but she is near enough that her men have begun firing muskets, hoping for a lucky hit; at this range, from moving ship to moving ship, there is no other kind of hit but a lucky one – but the man on the Grace’s wheel hunches his shoulders and ducks his head, nonetheless.
The Captain is standing beside the wheel, looking back over Desmond’s shoulder at the Sea-Cat. He does not duck. To his left and below, at the starboard rail of the main deck, O’Gallows and his two helpers crouch, waiting, an ungainly bundle of canvas and rope in their sweating hands. The Sea-Cat is not visible from where they are, and so their gazes are locked on their captain’s back, and the left arm he will use to signal them when the time is right.
“What the hell is he waiting for?” O’Gallows grumbles, trying to crane his head out to the side far enough to catch a glimpse of the other ship. He cannot – lucky, perhaps, as this would make him a target for musket fire – and he returns to his crouching and staring. “If they get too close, they’ll bloody well ram us and board even as we fire.” His gaze flicks to the two other men, who are exchanging worried frowns at these words, and O’Gallows falls silent and waits. Near them crouch six more men, including MacTeigue and the young Lynch, by three large cannons. They, too, wait, and stare at the captain’s back.
The Captain waits for – something. His eyes rove the forward rail of his enemy, seeking something, or someone, among the line of men firing and reloading muskets. Then, at last, he shakes his head and raises his hand, as his gaze flicks between his ship and the Sea-Cat, gauging a distance that has nearly become too close. But then he smiles. A man steps up to the rail of the Sea-Cat, a tall man, pale and gaunt, with white-blonde hair and deep-set eyes; from a distance, he has the appearance of a skull.
“Hello, Hobbes, you sodding bastard,” the Captain whispers. He raises his arm higher, and waves. The gaunt man lays a finger along his hat, nodding so slightly it is nearly imperceptible – then he draws his thumb across his throat in an unmistakable gesture. The skull grins. The Captain smiles in return. “Choke on this,” he mutters. Then he drops his arm and shouts, “NOW!”
O’Gallows and his two men throw the tangle of canvas and rope over the rail, and then run to the lines securing the ship’s mainsail, which is gaff-rigged like the Sea-Cat’s – tied at top and bottom to a long pole that juts out to the side, rather then sitting fixed to the mainmast like the bar of a cross; this means the mainsail can be moved to catch the wind as the ship turns. The tangle hits the water and sinks, though ropes trailing from it are still tied to the ship. As the tangle is dragged through the water, it opens into something like a parachute, the corners of the square canvas gathered together and tied to the ship: a sea-anchor. Instantly, the ship begins to slow, and turn, as the sea-anchor swings wide and drags. Desmond spins the wheel, O’Gallows swivels the gaffed mainsail – and the Grace turns, as swift and graceful as a falcon, and presents her broadside to the bow of the oncoming Sea-Cat.
“FIRE!” yells MacTeigue, and almost as one, six cannons explode in red flames and black smoke. The three above are four-pounders, loaded with chain shot – a pair of cannonballs attached by a stout length of chain, which spin like a bola when fired – and are aimed high, at the masts and sails of the pursuing ship; the three below are eight-pounders firing round cannonballs aimed at the waterline of the enemy ship, intended to sink her. The chain shot strikes true, and the foretopsail is torn in half, spilling the wind and losing a fraction of the Sea-Cat’s speed, but the heavier guns are aimed too low, and the round shot splashes into the ocean.
“Raise your aim, curse you!” MacTeigue shrieks as he and his men scramble to the next three guns, their movements mimicked below.
“Ian! Now!” roars the Captain, and then he draws from his sash a pistol – a revolver – and fires several shots at the men who have been shooting at him. Now they duck.
O’Gallows leaves his companions holding the mainsail’s lines and leaps to the rail, where the sea-anchor is attached to the capstan for the starboard anchor – and where an axe lies ready. He snatches up the blade, swings it over his head, and with a single blow shears through the two-inch-thick rope that holds the sea-anchor in place.
At the same moment, the six remaining cannons fire. This time, all six hit, but again, the heavier cannons miss their mark, striking the ship’s hull well above the waterline, punching holes in the wood but doing no real harm. The chain-shot tears at the main foresail but does not destroy it.
The moment the cannons fire, Desmond spins the wheel back to the left, and with a groan, the ship begins to turn. The two men on the mainsail lines struggle to reorient the gaff to match the new heading – running with the wind again, straight away from the pursuing Sea-Cat. But they slip, their curses turning to cries of pain and warning; O’Gallows drops the axe and leaps to them; he catches at the rope sliding through their hands, and together, they get the mainsail under control. The rough hemp rope is now marked with blood.
“O’Gallows!” shouts MacTeigue. “Take the port guns here! I’m going below to aim for those blind fools!” He races to the ladder and disappears. The gunners move to the port side, which at the moment faces nothing but empty sea, and prepare to fire the cannons.
O’Gallows turns his head to respond to MacTeigue, but he has already gone below. He curses. “Captain! I’ve the gaff and MacTeigue’s below – ye must fire the guns!” He braces his back as a gust of wind catches at the mainsail, and his companions curse at the pain, but none of them lets go of the line.
The Captain curses and looks down at the sea. The sea-anchor, cut loose from the ship’s starboard rail, has sunk lower and swung under the ship – and now it comes taut on the second line, run around the stern of the Grace and tied to the anchor capstan on the port side. With a groan and a shudder, the ship, begins a second rapid turn, now to the port side. The Captain nods and then leaps the eight feet down from the poop deck to the main deck, where he grabs a slow match – a length of fuse, smoldering at one end – from Lynch and crouches by the touch-hole of a four-pounder. “MacTeigue! On your mark!” he roars.
“Aye!” MacTeigue calls from below.
This time, the Sea-Cat is not caught unaware; the pursuing ship begins to fall off, turning away from the wheeling Grace – presenting the larger ship’s port side, rather than her bow; a larger target, but a target that can also fire back.
The Grace turns, Desmond straining against the wheel, his face white with pain, O’Gallows and his two men straining against the mainsail lines, every other man straining eyes and ears, waiting for the order to fire to echo out from the lower deck, waiting for the target to come into view. As she does – and she is a large target now: the sea-anchor has slowed the Grace appreciably, and the Sea-Cat has closed rapidly even while taking fire – they can see that her side will be to them. “Prepare to fire!” the Captain shouts. “To fire stations after the broadside!” There is a chorus of Ayes in response.
Then they wait.
The ropes creak. The men grunt. The waves splash. The ships turn, and turn, and turn, and then – “FIRE!”
Six cannons blast from the Grace. The chain shot rips through the shrouds, cutting several lines and tangling others; the Sea-Cat’s sails sag and flap. And – at last! – two eight-pound cannonballs, each four inches in diameter, strike the hull just at the waterline and crash through, followed by the frothing sea. A cheer begins and is cut off as the Captain roars “PREPARE TO FIRE AGAIN!” and moves to the next set of cannons. Now is the dangerous time, when the Sea-Cat’s cannons – she carries eighteen on a side, and enough men to fire all, reload and fire again – may blast away, smashing the sails, the mast, the hull, the guns, and the men of the Grace, crashing through flesh and metal and bone, striking deadly flying splinters from the wooden hull wherever the cannonballs strike.
But she does not fire.
From below, MacTeigue again yells “FIRE!” and six cannons blast. The chain shot does little harm, flying mainly between the masts; another round shot punches a third hole in the hull at the waterline.
“FIRE STATIONS!” the Captain bawls. The men below run to the pumps; above they drop buckets into the sea and raise them on ropes, ready to douse flames; canvas sheets are lowered and soaked, ready to smother sparks, as well. O’Gallows and his two helpers tie the mainsail’s lines to cleats, all three flexing their shaking, bloody hands with hisses of pain. “Sharpshooters to the mast!” the Captain calls as he strides to the ladder up to the poop deck. “Ian – cut it loose!”
O’Gallows’s axe strikes again, and the sea-anchor slowly floats to the surface and falls behind. The Captain takes a moment to watch it sink, raising a hand in salute. Lynch and two older men move to the mainmast where they untie long rifles from a rack; they tie pouches of ammunition to their belts. Then one crouches at the rail, and the other two climb the masts, Lynch at the foremast and the other man on the mainmast; they straddle the yardarms and raise the rifles, taking aim at the Sea-Cat.
Now fire comes from the Sea-Cat – but it is musket fire, not the cannons. Their sharpshooters are in place, as well, and far more numerous. Lead balls whine and crack against the Grace, and the men duck and curse, but stay at their stations. MacTeigue begins to reload the cannons, but it is a slow and laborious process, especially for one man working alone. But he continues, undaunted.
Now the Grace’s sharpshooters begin to return fire – and it is immediately clear that something is different. The crack of the guns is sharper, flatter, and with almost no smoke; then after each shot, they move a brass lever up, back, forward and down – and they fire again. The man at the rail does not even move a lever, simply aiming and pulling the trigger, again and again, firing without reloading. Their accuracy, too, is far greater, and men on the Sea-Cat cry out and fall, one after another.
But the Sea-Cat, after the apparent mistake of turning broadside and then failing to fire any cannon, has already begun turning to follow, and now she is aimed straight for the Grace once more, and drawing closer by the second despite the damage she has absorbed, her momentum carrying her as the smaller ship slowly begins to pick up her lost speed. Not soon enough: for the Sea-Cat comes within pistol range, and then she turns slightly, presenting her left fore-quarter to the starboard and stern of the Grace.
The Captain, standing on the poop deck, locks gazes with his opposite number, who is now close enough that the whites of his eyes are visible. With a start, the Captain realizes there is another man, standing in the shadow of the Sea-Cat’s commander: he is dark-skinned, African or West Indian, and his head is shaved clean; he wears a strange robe and a brimless cloth cap. This other man is smiling, and the evil in his expression is enough to make the Grace’s captain shiver, even from this distance. The Captain looks away.
Just then, at a shouted command that is audible even on the Grace, so close are the two ships, a dozen men stand from behind the Sea-Cat’s rail, where they had been concealed from the sight of the Grace’s three sharpshooters. These men hold guns, but they are not rifles, nor muskets, nor even pistols.
They are thunder-guns.
They open fire.
A hail of lead crashes into the Grace. The two sharpshooters in the rigging are struck almost instantly; Lynch drops with a thud and a cry to the deck, and the other man slumps into the mast, dead before he falls from his perch. The men on fire stations at the starboard rail are struck, as well – how could they not be? – and one falls into the water and is gone in an instant. O’Gallows is struck, a bullet creasing his hip and spinning him about; he falls with a snarl and a curse, clutching at his injury. The third sharpshooter, the hard-eyed, bearded man at the rail, is hit when a bullet passes through the wooden partition concealing him, hitting him in the leg; splinters fly and slash his cheek and hands. He drops his rifle with a grunt, falling onto his back on the deck.
The Captain, seeing his men brought down so quickly, draws a second pistol from his sash and leaps to the starboard rail of the poop deck, firing with both hands, yelling curses at the top of his lungs that cannot be heard through the thunder of the Sea-Cat’s gunmen.
One of the men on the Sea-Cat is struck, then a second; two others shift aim and fire at this new threat.
The Captain is struck, twice, and is knocked back. He falls from the poop deck and crashes onto the main deck.
All goes black.