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Authors: Wilbur Smith

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BOOK: Birds of Prey
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Hal reeled sideways off the mast and stood panting in the sunlight, blinded by his own sweat. Blood dripped slowly onto his jerkin – but from a nick only, made with a surgeon’s

‘Another scar for you each time you fight like a woman!’ Aboli scolded him.

With an expression of exhausted disbelief, Hal raised his left hand, which still held the dirk, and with the back of his fist wiped the blood from his chin. The tip of his earlobe was neatly
split and the quantity of blood exaggerated the severity of the wound.

The spectators bellowed with derision and mirth.

‘By Satan’s teeth!’ one of the coxswains laughed. ‘The pretty boy has more blood than he has guts!’

At the gibe, a swift transformation came over Hal. He lowered his dirk and extended the point in the guard position, ignoring the blood that still dripped from his chin. His face was blank, like
that of a statue, and his lips set and blanched frosty white. From his throat issued a low growl, and he launched himself at the Negro.

He exploded across the deck with such speed that Aboli was taken by surprise and driven back. When they locked blades he felt the new power in the boy’s arm, and his eyes narrowed. Then
Hal was upon him like a wounded wildcat bursting from a trap.

Pain and rage put wings on his feet. His eyes were pitiless and his clenched jaws tightened the muscles of his face into a mask that retained no trace of boyishness. Yet his fury had not robbed
him of reason and cunning. All the skill that the lad had accumulated, over hundreds of hours and days upon the practice deck, suddenly coalesced.

The watchers bayed as this miracle took place before their eyes. It seemed that, in that instant, the boy had become a man, had grown in stature so that he stood chin to chin and eye to eye with
his dark adversary.

It cannot last, Aboli told himself, as he met the attack. His strength cannot hold out. But this was a new man he confronted, and he had not yet recognized him.

Suddenly he found himself giving ground – he will tire soon – but the twin blades that danced before his eyes seemed dazzling and ethereal, like the dread spirits of the dark forests
that had once been his home.

He looked into the pale face and burning eyes and did not know them. He felt a superstitious awe assail him, which slowed his right arm. This was a demon, with a demon’s unnatural
strength. He knew that he was in danger of his life.

The next coup sped at his chest, glancing through his guard like a sunbeam. He twisted aside his upper body, but the thrust raked under his raised left arm. He felt no pain but heard the rasp of
the razor edge against his ribs, and the warm flood of blood down his flank. And he had ignored the weapon in Hal’s left fist and the boy used either hand with equal ease.

At the edge of his vision he saw the shorter, stiffer blade speed towards his heart and threw himself back to avoid it. His heel caught in the tail of the yard brace, coiled on the deck, and he
went sprawling. The elbow of his sword arm slammed into the gunwale, numbing it to the fingertips, and the cutlass flew from his fingers.

On his back, Aboli looked up helplessly and saw death above him in those terrifying green eyes. This was not the face of the child who had been his ward and special charge for the last decade,
the boy he had cherished and trained and loved over ten long years. This was a man who would kill him. The bright point of the cutlass started down, aimed at his throat, with the full weight of the
lithe young body behind it.

‘Henry!’ A stern, authoritative voice rang across the deck, cutting through the hubbub of the blood-crazed spectators.

Hal started, and stood still with the point against Aboli’s throat. A bemused expression spread across his face, like that of an awakening dreamer, and he looked up at his father on the
break of the poop.

‘Avast that tomfoolery. Get you down to my cabin at once.’

Hal glanced around the deck, at the flushed, excited faces surrounding him. He shook his head in puzzlement, and looked down at the cutlass in his hand. He opened his fingers and let it drop to
the planks. His legs turned to water under him and he sank down on top of Aboli and hugged him as a child hugs his father.

‘Aboli!’ he whispered, in the language of the forests that the black man had taught him and which was a secret no other white man on the ship shared with them. ‘I have hurt you
sorely. The blood! By my life, I could have killed you.’

Aboli chuckled softly and answered in the same language, ‘It was past time. At last you have tapped the well of warrior blood. I thought you would never find it. I had to drive you hard to

He sat up and pushed Hal away, but there was a new light in his eyes as he looked at the boy, who was a boy no longer. ‘Go now and do your father’s bidding!’

Hal stood up shakily and looked again round the circle of faces, seeing an expression in them that he did not recognize: it was respect mingled with more than a little fear.

‘What are you gawking at?’ bellowed Ned Tyler. ‘The play is over. Do you have no work to do? Man those pumps. Those topgallants are luffing. I can find mastheads for all idle
hands.’ There was the thump of bare feet across the deck as the crew rushed guiltily to their duties.

Hal stooped, picked up the cutlass, and handed it back to the boatswain, hilt first.

‘Thank you, Ned. I had need of it.’

‘And you put it to good use. I have never seen that heathen bested, except by your father before you.’

Hal tore a handful of rag from the tattered hem of his canvas pantaloons, held it to his ear to staunch the bleeding, and went down to the stern cabin.

Sir Francis looked up from his log-book, his goose quill poised over the page. ‘Do not look so smug, puppy,’ he grunted at Hal. ‘Aboli toyed with you, as he always does. He
could have spitted you a dozen times before you turned it with that lucky coup at the end.’

When Sir Francis stood up there was hardly room for them both in the tiny cabin. The bulkheads were lined from deck to deck with books, more were stacked about their feet and leather-bound
volumes were crammed into the cubby-hole that served his father as a bunk. Hal wondered where he found place to sleep.

His father addressed him in Latin. When they were alone he insisted on speaking the language of the educated and cultivated man. ‘You will die before you ever make a swordsman, unless you
find steel in your heart as well as in your hand. Some hulking Dutchman will cleave you to the teeth at your first encounter.’ Sir Francis scowled at his son, ‘Recite the law of the

‘An eye for his eyes,’ Hal mumbled in Latin.

‘Speak up, boy!’ Sir Francis’s hearing had been dulled by the blast of culverins – over the years a thousand broadsides had burst around his head. At the end of an
engagement, blood would be seen dripping from the ears of the seamen beside the guns and for days after even the officers on the poop heard heavenly bells ring in their heads.

‘An eye for his eyes,’ Hal repeated roundly, and his father nodded.

‘His eyes are the window to his mind. Learn to read in them his intentions before the act. See there the stroke before it is delivered. What else?’

‘The other eye for his feet,’ Hal recited.

‘Good.’ Sir Francis nodded. ‘His feet will move before his hand. What else?’

‘Keep the point high.’

‘The cardinal rule. Never lower the point. Keep it aimed at his eyes.’

Sir Francis led Hal through the catechism, as he had countless times before. At the end, he said, ‘Here is one more rule for you. Fight from the first stroke, not just when you are hurt or
angry, or you might not survive that first wound.’

He glanced up at the hourglass hanging from the deck above his head. ‘There is yet time for your reading before ship’s prayers.’ He spoke in Latin still. ‘Take up your
Livy and translate from the top of page twenty-six.’

For an hour Hal read aloud the history of Rome in the original, translating each verse into English as he went. Then, at last, Sir Francis closed his Livy with a snap. ‘There is
improvement. Now, decline the verb

That his father should choose this one was a mark of his approval. Hal recited it in a breathless rush, slowing when he came to the future indicative. ‘
. I shall

That word formed the motto of the Courtney coat-of-arms, and Sir Francis smiled frostily as Hal voiced it.

‘May the Lord grant you that grace.’ He stood up. ‘You may go now but do not be late for prayers.’

Rejoicing to be free, Hal fled from the cabin and went bounding up the companionway.

Aboli was squatting in the lee of one of the hulking bronze culverins near the bows. Hal knelt beside him. ‘I wounded you.’

Aboli made an eloquent dismissive gesture. ‘A chicken scratching in the dust wounds the earth more gravely.’

Hal pulled the tarpaulin cloak off Aboli’s shoulders, seized the elbow and lifted the thickly muscled arm high to peer at the deep slash across the ribs. ‘None the less, this little
chicken gave you a good pecking,’ he observed drily, and grinned as Aboli opened his hand and showed him the needle already threaded with sailmaker’s yarn. He reached for it, but Aboli
checked him.

‘Wash the cut, as I taught you.’

‘With that long black python of yours you could reach it yourself,’ Hal suggested, and Aboli emitted his long, rolling laugh, soft and low as distant thunder.

‘We will have to make do with a small white worm.’

Hal stood and loosed the cord that held up his pantaloons. He let them drop to his knees, and with his right hand drew back his foreskin.

‘I christen you Aboli, lord of the chickens!’ He imitated his own father’s preaching tone faithfully, and directed a stream of yellow urine into the open wound.

Although Hal knew how it stung, for Aboli had done the same many times for him, the black features remained impassive. Hal irrigated the wound with the very last drop and then hoisted his
breeches. He knew how efficacious this tribal remedy of Aboli’s was. The first time it had been used on him he had been repelled by it, but in all the years since then he had never seen a
wound so treated mortify.

He took up the needle and twine, and while Aboli held the lips of the wound together with his left hand, Hal laid neat sailmaker’s stitches across it, digging the needle point through the
elastic skin and pulling his knots up tight. When he was done, he reached for the pot of hot tar that Aboli had ready. He smeared the sewn wound thickly and nodded with satisfaction at his

Aboli stood up and lifted his canvas petticoats. ‘Now we will see to your ear,’ he told Hal, as his own fat penis overflowed his fist by half its length.

Hal recoiled swiftly. ‘It is but a little scratch,’ he protested, but Aboli seized his pigtail remorselessly and twisted his face upwards.

t the stroke of the bell the company crowded into the waist of the ship, and stood silent and bare-headed in the sunlight – even the black
tribesmen, who did not worship exclusively the crucified Lord but other gods also whose abode was the deep dark forests of their homes.

When Sir Francis, great leather-bound Bible in hand, intoned sonorously, ‘We pray you, Almighty God, deliver the enemy of Christ into our hands that he shall not triumph …’
his eyes were the only ones still cast heavenward. Every other eye in the company turned towards the east from where that enemy would come, laden with silver and spices.

Half-way through the long service a line squall came boring up out of the east, wind driving the clouds in a tumbling dark mass over their heads and deluging the decks with silver sheets of
rain. But the elements could not conspire to keep Sir Francis from his discourse with the Almighty, so while the crew huddled in their tar-daubed canvas jackets, with hats of the same material tied
beneath their chins, and the water streamed off them as off the hides of a pack of beached walrus, Sir Francis missed not a beat of his sermon. ‘Lord of the storm and the wind,’ he
prayed, ‘succour us. Lord of the battle-line, be our shield and buckler …’

The squall passed over them swiftly and the sun burst forth again, sparkling on the blue swells and steaming on the decks.

Sir Francis clapped his wide-brimmed cavalier hat back on his head, and the sodden white feathers that surmounted it nodded in approval. ‘Master Ned, run out the guns.’

It was the proper course to take, Hal realized. The rain squall would have soaked the priming and wet the loaded powder. Rather than the lengthy business of drawing the shot and reloading, his
father would give the crews some practice.

‘Beat to quarters, if you please.’

The drum-roll echoed through the hull, and the crew ran grinning and joking to their stations. Hal plunged the tip of a slow-match into the charcoal brazier at the foot of the mast. When it was
smouldering evenly, he leapt into the shrouds and, carrying the burning match in his teeth, clambered up to his battle station at the masthead.

On the deck he saw four men sway an empty water cask up from the hold and stagger with it to the ship’s side. At the order from the poop, they tossed it over and left it bobbing in the
ship’s wake. Meanwhile the guncrews knocked out the wedges and, heaving at the tackles, ran out the culverins. On either side of the lower deck there were eight, each loaded with a bucketful
of powder and a ball. On the upper deck were ranged ten demi-culverins, five on each side, their long barrels crammed with grape.

Lady Edwina
was low on iron shot after her two-year-long cruise, and some of the guns were loaded with water-rounded flint marbles hand-picked from the banks of the river mouths where
the watering parties had gone ashore. Ponderously she came about, and settled on the new tack, beating back into the wind. The floating cask was still two cables’ length ahead but the range
narrowed slowly. The gunners strode from cannon to cannon, pushing in the elevation wedges and ordering the training tackles adjusted. This was a specialized task: only five men aboard had the
skill to load and lay a gun.

BOOK: Birds of Prey
4.05Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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