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Authors: Wilbur Smith

Birds of Prey

BOOK: Birds of Prey
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‘The scope is magnificent and the epic scale breathtaking …
Wilbur Smith is one of those benchmarks against whom
others are compared’
The Times

‘An epic and gripping tale’
Mail on Sunday

‘A gripping tale, relentless in its flow, that evokes a more
colourful age – one of passion and a majesty of spirit that is
seldom illustrated with such nerve’
Daily Express



This book is for my wife
and the jewel of my life, Mokhiniso,
with all my love and gratitude for the
enchanted years that I have
been married to her.

Author’s Note

Although this story is set in the mid-seventeenth century, the galleons and caravels in which my characters find themselves are more usually associated
with the sixteenth century. Seventeenth-century ships often bore a strong resemblance to those of the sixteenth century, but as their names may be unfamiliar to the general reader, I have used the
better-known, if anachronistic, terms to convey an accessible impression of their appearance. Also, for the sake of clarity, I have simplified terminology in respect of firearms and, as it exists
as such in common idiom, I have occasionally used the word ‘cannon’ as a generic.

he boy clutched at the rim of the canvas bucket in which he crouched sixty feet above the deck as the ship went
about. The mast canted over sharply as she thrust her head through the wind. The ship was a caravel named the
Lady Edwina
, after the mother whom the boy could barely remember.

Far below in the pre-dawn darkness he heard the great bronze culverins slat against their blocks and come up with a thump against their straining tackle. The hull throbbed and resonated to a
different impulse as she swung round and went plunging away back into the west. With the south-east wind now astern she was transformed, lighter and more limber, even with sails reefed and with
three feet of water in her bilges.

It was all so familiar to Hal Courtney. He had greeted the last five and sixty dawns from the masthead in this manner. His young eyes, the keenest in the ship, had been posted there to catch the
first gleam of distant sail in the rose of the new day.

Even the cold was familiar. He pulled the thick woollen Monmouth cap down over his ears. The wind sliced through his leather jerkin but he was inured to such mild discomfort. He gave it no heed
and strained his eyes out into the darkness. ‘Today the Dutchmen will come,’ he said aloud, and felt the excitement and dread throb beneath his ribs.

High above him the splendour of the stars began to pale and fade, and the firmament was filled with the pearly promise of new day. Now, far below him, he could make out the figures on the deck.
He could recognize Ned Tyler, the helmsman, bowed over the whipstaff, holding the ship true; and his own father stooping over the binnacle to read the new course, the lantern lighting his lean dark
features and his long locks tangling and whipping in the wind.

With a start of guilt Hal looked out into the darkness; he should not be mooning down at the deck in these vital minutes when, at any moment, the enemy might loom close at hand out of the

By now it was light enough to make out the surface of the sea rushing by the hull. It had the hard iridescent shine of new-cut coal. By now he knew this southern sea so well; this broad highway
of the ocean that flowed eternally down the eastern coast of Africa, blue and warm and swarming with life. Under his father’s tutelage he had studied it so that he knew the colour, the taste
and run of it, each eddy and surge.

One day he also would glory in the title of Nautonnier Knight of the Temple of the Order of St George and the Holy Grail. He would be, as his father was, a Navigator of the Order. His father was
as determined as Hal himself to bring that about, and, at seventeen years of age, his goal was no longer merely a dream.

This current was the highway upon which the Dutchmen must sail to make their westings and their landfall on the mysterious coast that still lay veiled out there in the night. This was the
gateway through which all must pass who sought to round that wild cape that divided the Ocean of the Indies from the Southern Atlantic.

This was why Sir Francis Courtney, Hal’s father, the Navigator, had chosen this position, at 34 degrees 25 minutes south latitude, in which to wait for them. Already they had waited
sixty-five tedious days, beating monotonously back and forth, but today the Dutchmen might come, and Hal stared out into the gathering day with parted lips and straining green eyes.

A cable’s length off the starboard bow he saw the flash of wings high enough in the sky to catch the first rays of the sun, a long flight of gannets coming out from the land, snowy chests
and heads of black and yellow. He watched the leading bird dip and turn, breaking the pattern, and twist its head to peer down into the dark waters. He saw the disturbance below it, the shimmer of
scales and the seething of the surface as a shoal came up to the light. He watched the bird fold its wings and plunge downwards, and each bird that followed began its dive at the same point in the
air, to strike the dark water in a burst of lacy foam.

Soon the surface was thrashed white by the diving birds and the struggling silver anchovies on which they gorged. Hal turned away his gaze and swept the opening horizon.

His heart tripped as he caught the gleam of a sail, a tall ship square-rigged, only a league to the eastward. He had filled his lungs and opened his mouth to hail the quarterdeck before he
recognized her. It was the
Gull of Moray
, a frigate, not a Dutch East Indiaman. She was far out of position, which had tricked Hal.

Gull of Moray
was the other principal vessel in the blockading squadron. The Buzzard, her captain, should be lying out of sight below the eastern horizon. Hal leaned out over the edge
of the canvas crow’s nest and looked down at the deck. His father, fists on his hips, was staring up at him.

Hal called down the sighting to the quarterdeck, ‘The
hull up to windward!’ and his father swung away to gaze out to the east. Sir Francis picked out the shape of the
Buzzard’s ship, black against the darkling sky, and raised the slender brass tube of the telescope to his eye. Hal could sense anger in the set of his shoulders and the way in which he
slammed the instrument shut and tossed his mane of black hair. Before this day was out words would be exchanged between the two commanders. Hal grinned to himself. With his iron will and spiked
tongue, his fists and blade, Sir Francis struck terror into those upon whom he turned them – even his brother Knights of the Order held him in awe. Hal was thankful that this day his
father’s temper would be directed elsewhere than at him.

He looked beyond the
Gull of Moray
, sweeping the horizon as it extended swiftly with the coming of day. Hal needed no telescope to aid his bright young eyes – besides, only one of
these costly instruments was aboard. He made out the others’ sails then exactly where they should be, tiny pale flecks against the dark sea. The two pinnaces maintaining their formation,
beads in the necklace, were spread out fifteen leagues on each side of the
Lady Edwina
, part of the net his father had cast wide to ensnare the Dutchmen.

The pinnaces were open vessels, with a dozen heavily armed men crowded into each. When not needed they could be broken down and stowed in the
Lady Edwina
’s hold. Sir Francis changed
their crews regularly, for neither the tough West Country men nor the Welsh nor the even hardier ex-slaves that made up most of his crew could endure the conditions aboard those little ships for
long and still be fit for a fight at the end of it.

At last the full steely light of day struck as the sun rose from the eastern ocean. Hal gazed down the fiery path it threw across the waters. He felt his spirits slide as he found the ocean
empty of a strange sail. Just as on the sixty-five preceding dawns, there was no Dutchman in sight.

Then he looked northwards to the land mass that crouched like a great rock sphinx, dark and inscrutable, upon the horizon. This was the Agulhas Cape, the southernmost tip of the African

‘Africa!’ The sound of that mysterious name on his own lips raised goose pimples along his arms and made the thick dark hair prickle on the back of his neck.

‘Africa!’ The uncharted land of dragons and other dreadful creatures, who ate the flesh of men, and of dark-skinned savages who also ate men’s flesh and wore their bones as

‘Africa!’ The land of gold and ivory and slaves and other treasures, all waiting for a man bold enough to seek them out, and, perhaps, to perish in the endeavour. Hal felt daunted
yet fascinated by the sound and promise of that name, its menace and challenge.

Long hours he had pored over the charts in his father’s cabin when he should have been learning by rote the tables of celestial passages, or declining his Latin verbs. He had studied the
great interior spaces, filled with drawings of elephants and lions and monsters, traced the outlines of the Mountains of the Moon, and of lakes and mighty rivers confidently emblazoned with names
such as ‘Khoikhoi’, and ‘Camdeboo’, ‘Sofala’ and ‘the Kingdom of Prester John’. But Hal knew from his father that no civilized man had ever travelled
into that awesome interior and wondered, as he had so many times before, what it would be like to be the first to venture there. Prester John particularly intrigued him. This legendary ruler of a
vast and powerful Christian empire in the depths of the African continent had existed in the European mythology for hundreds of years. Was he one man, or a line of emperors? Hal wondered.

Hal’s reverie was interrupted by shouted orders from the quarterdeck, faint on the wind, and the feel of the ship as she changed course. Looking down, he saw that his father intended to
intercept the
Gull of Moray
. Under top sails only, and with all else reefed, the two ships were now converging, both running westward towards the Cape of Good Hope and the Atlantic.They
moved sluggishly – they had been too long in these warm southern waters, and their timbers were infested with the Toredo worm. No vessel could survive long out here. The dreaded shipworms
grew as thick as a man’s finger and as long as his arm, and they bored so close to each other through the planks as to honeycomb them. Even from his seat at the masthead Hal could hear the
pumps labouring in both vessels to lower the bilges. The sound never ceased: it was like the beating of a heart that kept the ship afloat. It was yet another reason why they must seek out the
Dutchmen: they needed to change ships. The
Lady Edwina
was being eaten away beneath their feet.

As the two ships came within hailing distance the crews swarmed into the rigging and lined the bulwarks to shout ribald banter across the water.

The numbers of men packed into each vessel never failed to amaze Hal when he saw them in a mass like this. The
Lady Edwina
was a ship of 170 tons burden, with an overall length of little
more than 70 feet, but she carried a crew of a hundred and thirty men if you included those now manning the two pinnaces. The
was not much larger, but with half as many men again

Every one of those fighting men would be needed if they were to overwhelm one of the huge Dutch East India galleons. Sir Francis had gathered intelligence from all the corners of the southern
ocean from other Knights of the Order, and knew that at least five of these great ships were still at sea. So far this season twenty-one of the Company’s galleons had made the passage and had
called at the tiny victualling station below the towering Tafelberg, as the Dutch called it, or Table Mountain at the foot of the southern continent before turning northwards and voyaging up the
Atlantic towards Amsterdam.

Those five tardy ships, still straggling across the Ocean of the Indies, must round the Cape before the southeasterly trades fell away and the wind turned foul into the north-west. That would be

BOOK: Birds of Prey
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