1760, somewhere across the Atlantic Ocean
John Grey stood by the foremast of His Majesty’s ship, the Sapphire watching the sunlight glimmer on the blue waves of the ocean. A few yards ahead of them sailed the Minerva a merchant ship they were escorting to Boston. She sailed with a rich cargo, this time under the usual yards of good English wool hid a sizeable amount of gold, generous donation for the rebuilding after the recent fire, cargo for sure tempting for any pirate who got a whiff about it. Grey was here steering the proud man-of-war to eliminate that temptation. It was a simple, political matter.
Grey took a deep breath of the salty air and stretched comfortably. The wind was tugging mischievously at his hair he wore securely tied at the nape of his neck. He felt the ship hum beneath his feet with controlled power and it lifted his spirits like nothing else. The Minerva sailed at roughly six knots, straining under her cargo. They raised as many sails as they dared, trying to hasten their journey. For the Sapphire, the pace was quite modest. Grey has felt her at full speed and it was an exhilarating experience. If they were not fully loaded with cannons and ammunition and the weather was favourable she was able to reach as fast as nine knots, a speed that made Grey feel quite giddy when he first experienced it out on the open sea.
He put a hand on the weathered wood of the railing, adjusting his hat with the other and scanned the deck out of years of habit to see if everything was amiss.
Nothing was. Grey didn’t expect any trouble on their journey. Of course, life was never uneventful on a ship, the sea itself being a mistress with a volatile temper. However, any sensible pirate would turn around at the sight of the White Ensign and flee, fearing pursuit. They couldn’t know it was unlikely in this case. Grey was under strict orders to see the Minerva safely into the port of Boston. As much as he might want to chase after petty thieves to uphold the law, it wasn’t a priority on this journey.
Oh well, on their way home they were quite free to spare some attention to any pirate they would encounter. Grey grinned to himself. The next two weeks were about quietly doing their duty, but he was willing to suffer some boredom when there was the prospect of adventure on the horizon.
It was one of the things that made him choose this life much to his brother’s horror. Hal would have preferred if he joined the Army like him. The Navy was for the desperate, who didn’t have a choice, he said. Full of young men they pretty much had to drag to enlist. John could do better.
He smiled at the memory. He knew it came from a good place, from Hal wanting to protect him from hardship. But their father always had a soft spot for his youngest son and he was willing to grant him his wish.
Maybe he was desperate. Desperate for adventure. All he knew was that the first time he set foot on a ship he was captivated by the whole operation with its secret expressions he had no idea what they meant at the time. Looking at the horizon the prospect of unseen lands excited him. He delighted in the freedom of being out on the open sea, with no land in sight, nothing to obstruct the gaze. The smell of the salty air refreshed him, and the rocking of the ship lulled him to sleep at night.
Grey patted the railing. Ships were truly magnificent constructions of their time.
There was also the small convenience that navy officers often stayed unmarried for a long time. It wasn’t unusual for one to never marry. The unreliable nature of their occupation wasn’t compatible with family life. A solider often left home for long periods of time as well, but with a navy officer, you could never really tell if and when the winds would take them back home.
He could, of course, acquire a wife and then conveniently leave her in a house somewhere in the English countryside. But no one really frowned if he didn’t, Hal having plenty of children to carry on the family lineage.
And the only she so far that could make John’s heart beat faster was a beautiful ship.
He made his way casually across the deck, greeting his men who were adeptly going about their business. They were steadily on course, the weather was kind. He would have time to update the logs, write some letters, maybe even read something.
“Good morning, Captain!”
John shielded his eyes against the sun as he looked up at the young man, sitting on the rigging. Tom Byrd was grinning ear-to-ear, bare feet dangling, hanging from one of the lines like a particularly cheerful apple on the lowest branch of a tree.
“Morning, Tom.” He absent-mindedly caught one of his skinny ankles and tugged playfully. “Come down, will you before you break your neck?”
“Don’t keep little birds from flying, Captain,” interjected one of the topmen from above, and they all laughed.
Tom was the boatswain’s mate, and he was very enthusiastic about inspecting the rigging and sails each morning by climbing all over them like a little monkey. Everyone on the ship liked the boy, Grey included. He was meticulous about his tasks and showed leadership qualities quite admirable for his small size.
Grey turned and continued walking. There was the creak of ropes and a soft thump behind as Tom scrambled after him.
“Would you like me to bring you some more lamp oil now, Captain? You mentioned yesterday you were running low on it.”
Grey smiled at the attentive offer.
“That’s alright, Tom, I still have a few candles left. Maybe later. But,” he added after seeing the brief flash of disappointment on the boy’s face, ”you can come and help me with my letters. If you have no other duties, of course. As you know, a ship is like a well-tuned clock. Every little piece must do its part in order for it to work properly.”
Tom nodded along enthusiastically.
“I’ve already mended one of the foresails today. It was looking worse for wear last week, but I think we must have caught a seagull or something because a corner of it was neatly torn off the line now,“ he explained as if this was the most exciting thing that happened to him all week.
“I’ll take a look at it later, I’m sure you did a wonderful job at fixing it,” Grey answered and Tom beamed under the praise. He was indeed very good with needle and thread which earned him a few teasing comments from the crew, but it was all done in a friendly manner. Grey would have put a stop to it otherwise.
“Well then, if you have no other task, I will dictate you a few of my letters,” he decided. Then he bent closer in a conspirational way, “If you write legibly enough I will let you help with the log too.”
The young Byrd had a good head for numbers, but his penmanship was quite terrible in all honesty. If he ever wanted to advance – and John was prepared to support him in that regard – he would definitely need to improve on that.
Half an hour later Tom Byrd had ink all over his fingers and smeared across the bridge of his nose and John could barely contain his laughter at imagining his brother’s face upon opening this letter.
Serves him right, he thought, as Hal himself wasn’t known for sending the most thoughtfully executed letters either. He let Tom sand and fold the letter, and drip candle wax on it before he pressed his signet ring into it.
Tom beamed at him, and John was just about to suggest starting on the next one, when there was a shout from the deck that sounded awfully lot like “Sails!”.
He furrowed his brows and walked briskly out of his cabin. When he reached the quarterdeck, he spotted his second in command, Lieutenant Newman, a competent, but usually somewhat stiff fellow, practically running towards him.
“Captain, a pirate ship has been spotted north-west,” the man exclaimed with heaving chest.
He looked more excited than frightened. Grey just felt puzzled.
“Heading towards us?” he asked as he quickly stepped to the rail and squinted, scanning the horizon.
Grey held out a hand to him and Lieutenant Newman pressed the telescope into it. Grey raised it to his eye.
And there it was. A sloop with the black flag, sails straining in the wind, heading straight towards them.
“I’ll be damned,” Grey muttered, then started yelling orders.
The last thing he expected was being attacked by pirates on this journey. The Minerva’s cargo was rich, but not worth the risk compared to ships without an escort. Grey wasn’t among those officers, who regarded the enemy as inhuman monsters, beyond reason, but he thought the captain of this pirate ship might be a few barrels of rum short of a dozen.
They were coming from north-west, from the opposite side of the Minerva. Grey gave orders to turn the ship and cut them off. By the time they rounded the Minerva, the pirate ship was almost within range.
Out of sheer courtesy, Grey gave orders to fire a shot before they could reasonably hit them.
But the pirates were not deterred by the cannonball, that landed just ten yards before them with a mighty splash. The sloop turned slightly, as expected, trying to manoeuvre just out of range. It was a quick ship, with the advantage of momentum, but the Sapphire definitely outweighed it in firing power. One successful broadside volley and they would be crippled.
Well then, Grey was quite prepared to sink another pirate ship, now that the occasion presented itself. He gave prompt orders.
Men hurried on deck to comply, wooden boot heels thumping as they run. Ropes were creaking and the sails billowed out with a satisfying snap as the Sapphire caught the wind. The ship lurched into action and Grey felt the thrill in his belly at the movement.
They pursued the pirate ship heading for the Minerva. She very sensibly took flight at the sight of the pirates but had no chance at outrunning them weighed down with cargo as she was.
Grey heard the men preparing the canons below deck, the heavy scrape of metal on the wooden planks. Meanwhile, the Sapphire elegantly sprang after the other ship. They could have slipped away if they hadn’t come at them. But now the Sapphire was approaching at an angle, with the wind on their side and soon they would be in range to fire the cannons.
But before they could get into position, the sloop turned sharply. Her sails went limp, losing the wind, the ship sliding sideways from sheet momentum.
“What on earth are they doing?” Grey exclaimed. He saw no reason why the pirate ship would abandon the pursuit of the Minerva and offer her side, an easy target for their cannonballs. “Lieutenant, what is this ship, do we know them?”
The lieutenant peered into the looking glass. “It’s the La Dame Blanche, sir. With the Scottish criminal, Red Jamie at the helm.”
Grey, of course, had heard of the ship and her captain but had no personal quarrel with them. There were, however, more urgent matters to think about. The La Dame Blanche almost stopped now, with this speed they would crash into them before they could shoot them to shreds.
Grey swore in German.
An impact like that might sink both ships.
It was a clever move he gave them that. Clever move, that is, if they wanted to board the Sapphire instead of the Minerva, which they couldn’t have an earthly reason for. But Grey didn’t have time to think about the pirates’ motivation.
With the distance rapidly decreasing between the two ships, he had no choice, but to give orders to release the sails, and turn the ship to reduce the impact. There was no time to fire the cannons. There would be a fight on deck, there was no question about that now.
His men were well trained, and they were able to prepare for the inevitable in no time at all. Grey checked his own knife and pistols.
“Brace for impact!” he shouted.
Grey himself caught the end of a rope and twisted it around his fist, taking a solid stance. The two ships collided with a crash that knocked many men off their feet scrambling for something to hold onto. The smaller ship rocked heavier and Grey saw seawater splash over the railing taking a pirate with it. What on earth were they thinking?!
The hulls grated against each other with a terrible sound. There was yelling, as half a dozen hooks flew across the gap and latched onto the railings of the Sapphire, handy nets attached to them. And then they were boarded by pirates.
They had to climb upwards since the Sapphire was a good 10 feet taller than the other ship and Grey gave orders to cut as many ropes and shoot as many pirates they could before they could reach the deck. But their first line of defence broke after a while and pirates were jumping over the railing, using their momentum to tackle his men.
Grey always experienced time differently in a fight and he was sure he wasn’t alone with this. Time seemed to slow down, and his mind had blocked out so much, but he saw other things crystal clear. If he were registering everything, as usual, he probably would have gotten overwhelmed, and if he didn’t see other things with an enhanced clarity he would have probably been long dead.
He saw who was most likely the captain of the pirate ship flung himself across the railing. A tall, red-headed man with his cutlass between his clenched teeth. Grey fought at the quarterdeck, not far from his cabin. He shot a pirate clear between the eyes, then drew out his sword, since there was no time for reloading. In the back of his mind, he was assessing the whole situation constantly.
His crew was made up of well-trained, well-rested, and well-armed men. But they were caught off guard, scrambling to react, and that was never an ideal position to win a fight.
He pushed a pirate into the sea, when he spotted him again, deliberately cutting a path towards him. The man was huge, tall and broad-shouldered. His flame-red hair was flying in a wind like a flag, signalling immediate danger. Under his brown coat, his shirt was already torn, fabric and tanned skin splattered with blood. Whether his or someone else’s Grey didn’t know.
He cut his way forcefully through the fight heading straight towards the back where Grey was standing. Their eyes met and something visceral gripped John in the stomach. The man was staring at him intently, no doubt deciding on him as the next target.
Before the pirate captain could reach him, John spotted Tom Byrd. The young man was gripping a beam with both hands, probably something they kept for fixing the sails. He was the process of administering a few not precise but effective blows to the head of a pirate and then jabbing him into the stomach so that he tumbled off the quarterdeck with a shout. Grey was allowed a fleeting moment of pride, and then the realization hit him that Byrd was standing right between him and the pirate captain who was right at the bottom of the stairs now. Grey grabbed Tom’s arm and pushed the boy behind him.
From this close, he could see how much he was trembling. Grey steered him into the corridor leading to his cabin, then whirled around just in time to see Red Jamie leaping up the stairs to the quarterdeck in a few feet away.
John didn’t hesitate drawing his second pistol and firing at the man. The pirate captain ducked last minute, crouching like some creature from a nightmare, grinned, then launched himself at Grey.
The size difference between them was like that of the Sapphire and the La Dame Blanche. Unfortunately, this time it was not in John’s favour.
John caught his first blow with his sword, steal singing as their blades slid off of each other. He knew he had to make it quick if he were to survive this. He advanced with a series of fast moves forcing the pirate into defence. Red Jamie blocked each, then answered with redoubled efforts.
John stepped to the side. The man was holding the sword with his left hand which made his moves somewhat unexpected, but it also gave John an opening. He swung his sword and the blade caught the pirate in the thigh, drawing blood. It wasn’t a deep cut, but it flooded Grey with hope, at least that rush of boldness that was the closest to true hope one usually got in a fight.
The pirate touched the wound briefly, then looked up, slanted blue eyes glinting like a cat’s.
“Ye’re a feisty wee Englishman,” he said with a savage grin, then threw himself back into the fight.
This shouldn’t have been a duel, John thought. Someone ought to shoot the man because he was only delaying the inevitable here. Sweat trickled down his back as he jumped back to avoid the next swing of his blade.
He wasn’t quick enough by the next one, he barely raised his sword in time to catch the blow, and the sheer force behind it knocked the sword out of his grip. He instinctively pulled his dagger, but the pirate was already on him, showing him into the wooden wall of behind him. The man gripped the wrist of his hand holding the dagger with one of his large hands and forced it upward. John resisted with the last bit of his strength, muscles trembling. But he stood no chance and soon enough his hand was pressed against the wall above his head, dagger tumbling from between his fingers.
For a split second everything seemed to slow down as they stared each other in the eye. John could register every single little detail. The bead of sweat that formed at the pirate’s temple, washing away a trail in the soot of gunpowder as it rolled down. The sky, still so bright and blue behind, the shouts and grunts of the fight.
He wondered when his life would start flashing before his eyes, then he wondered why he wasn’t feeling particularly afraid.
But instead of getting a blade in his stomach, the pirate hit him in the head with the hilt of his cutlass. Hard.
John collapsed on the spot, vision going black.