RACING THE HEADSMAN



RACING THE HEADSMAN, by Andrew Knighton

 

Bullets hissed past Sir Henry Torrent’s head like a swarm of angry flies. Some hit the floating prison’s quay, knocking splintered holes through the planks. Others vanished into the darkness, lost between a starless sky and the endless sea. At this range, he feared only a little for his life, the danger adding spice to an already glorious adventure.

‘Captain, they’re almost on us!’ Israel Pound turned, snapped off a pistol shot, and scurried on towards the ship, leaving a cloud of greasy, sulphurous smoke.

‘Pray don’t vex yourself, Pound.’ Sir Henry ushered their manacled guest towards the gangplank.

‘But Captain…’ Fresh yelling caused Pound to put his breath into speed, not speech.

‘Have faith,’ Sir Henry said. ‘I told you, I have a plan.’

‘Captain!’ Pound’s voice was rising as he frantically rammed powder and shot down his gun. Their pursuers were on the quay now, not thirty yards separating them from HMS Bedevere and her crew.

Sir Henry hurried the man up the plank, watching gleefully to see his crew’s response. ‘My dear brave boys, have I ever led you wrong?’

He watched salutes faltering on the deck, the men clearly awed by their guest.

He glanced at his pocket watch and smiled to himself with pride.

‘Any moment…’ he said to Pound.

There was a roar like thunder through God’s own house, and the night turned orange. Timbers from the prison hurtle flaming into nearby ships. Their pursuers turned, staring frozen upon the ruin Sir Henry had wrought.

‘Cast off, boys,’ he called out in triumph. ‘Set sail for France. Cromwell’s men will be busy for a while, and we’ve a nation to save.’

#

The sea was a shimmering sheet of blue silk from horizon to horizon. Sir Henry sat on the aft castle of the Bedevere, sipping a full bodied claret and watching a stray gull soar overhead. To him, such birds were true survivors, drifting for long days across the vast ocean, finding brief perches in the rigging of ships. The ones strong enough to claim a nest on the scattered remnants of land, they were successes, strong and fearless. Then there were the ones that dropped homeless and exhausted into the sea, corpses swallowed by the briny depths. But this one, this one was a survivor.

Sir Henry’s pistol barked and the feathered vermin tumbled out of the blue. He watched it disappear beneath the waves, relishing his own accuracy and the auspicious omen. The Commonwealth were survivors too, for all that God had tried to wash them away. But Sir Henry would do something about that though. With the aid of their passenger, he would rally every right thinking Englishman on the seven seas. Soon Cromwell and his revolution would be nothing but a bad memory. Not everyone deserved to survive.

Sir Henry blinked away the powder smoke and turned to watch the crew busying themselves around the deck, splicing ropes, stitching canvas, cleaning and polishing the mismatched assortment of cannon. Such pride in their ship was a noble thing to behold, a noble ember of civilisation ready to burn back into life. Usually, this busy work was accompanied by the singing of rowdy shanties. But today they were quiet, heads bowed, talking only in whispers; awestruck, Sir Henry was sure, at the boldness of his latest endeavour.

It had been quiet all morning, with fine weather and a good following wind, the peace broken only by the whimpering cries of Holdsby’s fevered dreams. He had taken a musket ball during the raid, leaving one arm shattered and seeping. Doc Curly had done his best to set it, and Sir Henry had given a passable brandy to ease the lad’s pain. But still, Sir Henry wished Holdsby would quieten down. There was no need to bring down the spirits of the crew.

‘Cap’n.’ Israel Pound raised a salute, his other hand gripped tightly around a brass telescope.

‘Mister Pound.’ Sir Henry raised his hat, peacock feathers bouncing in the breeze. ‘How can I help?’

‘There’s a ship behind us.’ The first mate lowered his salute, fingers lingering on the small gilded crucifix at his neck. ‘Reckon they’re on the same heading.’

‘May I?’ Sir Henry took the telescope. Through its dark tunnel a brighter patch of blue appeared, the waves dancing a more indolent waltz through the distorting mirror of distance. He swept the instrument across the horizon until a vessel came into view, top and studding sails flying, catching all she could of the wind.

‘No need to worry, Mister Pound,’ Sir Henry said. ‘There’s barely a ship afloat that can keep up with the Bedevere. We’ll soon lose them, if they’re even after us.’

Something bright caught his eye, red against the white of the forward topsail. He couldn’t make out the shape at this distance, but it was enough to raise a small tremor of dread.

‘Just in case,’ he said, squeezing the doubt from his voice, ‘have someone check the sails, and bring me the Black Letter.’ He lowered the telescope and gave Pound his most confident grin. ‘You can never be too careful, eh?’

Sir Henry sat back, sipping his wine and watching the ominous speck on the horizon. The wind whipped his hair across his face, and he stowed his hat before it was blown from his head. The sea was a terrible fate for good velvet.

Soon Pound returned, grunting as he heaved the Black Letter onto Sir Henry’s breakfast table. Gilt legs creaked beneath the marvel of communication, housed as it was in a solid iron box.

‘Careful, old chap,’ Sir Henry said, leaning excitedly forward over the brass keys. ‘Don’t want to scratch the furniture, eh?’

‘Nor let loose this device’s witchcraft,’ Pound said, crossing himself as he stared at the box.

‘I’ve told you before,’ Sir Henry said, ‘if King Louis of France has one then it can’t possibly be witchcraft. Louis is as good a Catholic as any of us.’ He cranked the handle, turned a key, and listened as the box clattered and buzzed. ‘It’s boxed lightning, or the breath of God, or something alchemical like that.’

He jerked back as a spark leapt from the keys.

‘Alchemists share a circle of Hell with Lutherans,’ Pound said.

‘Fine, fine.’ Sir Henry held out a hand. ‘Fetch me the French cryptographic tables, I want to let our allies know what’s going on.’ Another thought caught him as Pound’s footsteps retreated down the steps. ‘And see if his Majesty awoken.’

#

The door to the aft castle opened, and Sir Henry, stood amid decks in his second best doublet, let out a cheer.

‘At last, boys,’ he bellowed in excitement. ‘Stand to attention.’

Sheepishly, Israel Pound emerged and sidled up to Sir Henry.

‘I’m not sure -‘ he murmured.

Sir Henry held up a hand. ‘Oh, do stop fussing.’

He’d seen this reticence before. Insisting on grappling hooks when they boarded the Lady Jane. Preventing Sir Henry from breaking into Montagu’s house in the Rum Islands. Pound had a cautious streak as wide as the ocean. It was excellent to have such men to count the supplies, but there was no fire in his soul, none of the flare that inspired worthy followers. It was a terrible disappointment, but what could one do?

Pound sighed and turned back to the cabin, flinging the door wide to reveal Charles II in all his majesty.

The king took small, measured steps as he came blinking into the light, one hand stretched out in greeting to his subjects. The other took a firm grip on the rail, a lord taking the measure of his realm.

Pound had tied back the king’s hair, revealing skin so white it was almost translucent. Sir Henry’s best clothes hung loosely off the king, accentuating his slender frame. Though scarred from his long sojourn in a puritan jail, Charles gazed fiercely around him.

Whispers rippled through the crew. Sir Henry caught the piper’s eye, and after the briefest hesitation he started up the national anthem, rowdy voices joining one by one in the most stirring of songs.

‘Your Majesty.’ Sir Henry swept forward into a bow. ‘Sir Henry Torrent and crew at your most humble service. Welcome aboard the HMS Bedevere.’

The King stood, eyes darting back and forth across the deck. For the first time, Sir Henry saw his proud vessel through a monarch’s eyes, and embarrassment flushed his cheeks. The worn, mismatched cannon, some starting to rust despite regular polishing. The patched sails and boarded planks, sturdily fixed but far from elegant. The dent in the main-mast from the engagement when they’d captured her from the renegade Earl of Essex. The poor Bedevere suddenly seemed a sight for sore eyes.

Bedevere, eh?’ The King’s brow furrowed in concentration. ‘Named for the previous Torrent?’

Sir Henry bowed lower.

‘My father,’ he murmured. ‘I seek to keep his name alive, that it may strike fear in the hearts of those who slew him.’

He felt a knot in his chest at the thought of the terrible day when Fairfax’s men had come, of the blood and clatter of swords, of his father crying out in pain and rage even as loyal servants whisked young Henry to safety. Death for the Torrent who should have lived, life for his son.

The King gazed absently at the deck, doubtless lost in thoughts of his own father, his life cut short by the executioner’s axe.

The crew were muttering among themselves. Sir Henry would have words with them later. It must be hard to suppress their excitement, but such behaviour was unacceptable in the presence of their monarch.

At last the King gave a flick of his wrist and Sir Henry rose.

‘If I may,’ he said, gesturing up the steps to the aft deck, ‘luncheon is served.’

He led the way up the steps to a small but elegant table flanked by a pair of gilt and velvet chairs. The King perched on the edge of his seat, hands resting on the arms, ever alert as he perused the ship. Sir Henry, for his part, flopped back into his seat and lifted the cover from the dishes, his mouth watering despite the meagre fare.

‘I’m afraid that it’s mostly salt beef and pickled vegetables,’ he said. ‘The cook managed to bake some fresh bread, but he wasn’t a cook before all this, and, well…’ He tapped the charred base of the loaf. ‘I’m sure the insides are delicious.’

The King was already wolfing down a slice of beef, cold grey meat clutched between thin fingers. Sir Henry lowered his own fork and picked uncertainly at a slither of cabbage. He had never been to court, but had always assumed that they used more cutlery than sailors, not less. Still, where the crown led fashion followed.

Pound approached, carafe in one hand, telescope in the other.

‘If I may, sir.’ He poured for the King, then leaned in close to Sir Henry, whispering as he filled his glass. ‘That sail’s gaining on us, sir.’

‘Don’t be ridiculous,’ Sir Henry hissed. ‘There’s only one ship that can match us, and she’s in the Indies.’

‘Pardon me, sir, but she ain’t.’ Pound glanced nervously at their guest. ‘Full rig, sleek frame, and she’s flying the red flag. With who’s on board, I don’t reckon it for coincidence.’

Sir Henry snatched the telescope and strode to the aft rail, peering out over the ocean. Sure enough, there was the same ship, closer now, flying the red pennant that signalled deadly pursuit, with no quarter asked and none given. If that and her distinctive modern rig weren’t enough, the white dots of skulls lined the fore rail, a boast and a warning to those who crossed the Commonwealth. It sickened Sir Henry to see the mortal remains of good men defiled in this way.

‘Damn my eyes, but you’re right,’ he exclaimed. ‘It’s the Headsman, and she’s after us.’

The King jerked to his feet, spraying breadcrumbs in alarm.

‘Headsman?’ he shrieked.

‘Be calm, your majesty.’ Sir Henry hurried to him, hands raised in placation. ‘It’s just a ship.’

‘Admiral Caldsby’s ship,’ Pound said.

The King trembled with fresh alarm, as fearful as a landsman in a storm. Clearly they had threatened him with Ninetail Caldsby as well as the block.

‘Yes, yes, fine.’ Sir Henry impatiently waved Pound away. ‘So it’s the admiral’s. But that doesn’t matter. We’re heading for France and friendly ports.’

‘France?’ The King’s eyes narrowed with suspicion. ‘You’re foreign agents, aren’t you?’

‘No no no!’ Sir Henry paused for a moment, thinking how many of their cannon and crew were second hand French. But that was details, and this was an English ship, a royal ship. ‘The French just have ports where we can find shelter and resupply. A place to rally the troops for your glorious return. Sadly, not many of your majesty’s cities are still above water.’

Not many that weren’t held by the Commonwealth or rebellious Scots, at any rate, but now wasn’t the time for that heartbreaking detail either.

‘Actually sir, the Headsman‘s heading into our starboard line,’ Pound said. ‘Looks to be cutting us off to the south. Perhaps we should head north-east instead, to Scandinavia?’

‘I don’t advise it, your majesty,’ Sir Henry said, turning to the King. Now was the time for the leadership they had all longed for. ‘We can’t be certain which neutral ports remain neutral, while France is ever our friend. The Headsman may be faster, but not by much, and in this wind we will still reach friendly waters before they can overtake us.’

The King stood uncertain, glancing between them. Sir Henry imagined the glorious reception they would receive when they brought him to Tours, compared it with the indifference they always faced in Ostersund. There was no choice in the matter. Honour, as much as safety, was at stake.

‘Will you let it be said that Charles II turned in fear from a jumped up Puritan fisherman?’ he asked.

‘Certainly not,’ the King said, a gleam in his eye. ‘Keep south, and on to our friends in France.’ He paused, took a swallow of wine. ‘Your king commands it.’

#

In Sir Henry’s dream, a beautiful countess was listening in rapt admiration as he recounted his adventures, while they strolled alone through a moonlit garden. His passion rose at her presence, her hand soft as silk on his arm, her noble breast heaving in excitement.

It was a bitter awakening, then, to find Israel Pound’s rough hand shaking his arm, and the first mate whispering in his ear.

‘Captain, get up,’ Pound said. ‘They’re nearly on us.’

‘What?’ Sir Henry pushed himself upright, rubbing the sleep from his eyes. The cabin was lit only by Pound’s lamp, not a slither of daylight piercing the moth-eaten curtains. ‘What damn time do you call this?’

‘Just before dawn,’ Pound said, throwing him his trousers. ‘Come, quick.’

Sir Henry tugged on his trousers and boots, fished around for doublet and hat while Pound stood tapping impatiently on the doorframe.

‘Honestly, old chap, you really should calm yourself,’ Sir Henry said, following him out onto deck. The sky in the east was starting to grow light, a thin smear of orange on the palette of the great painter. He strolled confidently across the deck, master of all he surveyed. ‘Nothing of merit ever happens at night.’

‘Nothing?’ Pound pointed southwest, where a dark shape was visible against the fading grey of night. As if on cue, the shutters opened on a dozen lanterns, lighting up the rail of the Headsman. Gun ports gleamed, still at the far range of most cannon, and yet frighteningly close. Skulls grinned in the fiery light, a vision of hell descended upon the Bedevere. The vision was accompanied by rattling drums and pounding feet as, all across the enemy ship, men took combat positions.

Terror rushed through Sir Henry, but it didn’t slow him down. He knew in the instant that he had been wrong, but he also knew not to dwell in the past. Fast as an eel, he grabbed the whistle that dangled at Pound’s neck and blew an almighty blast.

‘All hands!’ he bellowed. ‘All hands on deck!’

Crewmen sleeping on the Bedevere‘s deck leapt to their feet, grabbing boots as they rushed to their guns. Others scurried up the steps from below, rolling out barrels of powder, clutching pistols and cutlasses. But even as they made for their stations the Headsman‘s guns began to roar, shot whooshing past the crew’s heads or gouging fountains of spray from the sea.

‘How did they manage it?’ Sir Henry snapped. ‘To make this much ground, at night, and without our knowing?’

‘They’re the New Model Navy,’ Pound replied, his voice dulled with resignation. ‘They’re better than us.’

‘Well they’re not better than me.’ Sir Henry’s mind raced, seeking a way out of their impending heroic demise.

‘That’s Admiral Caldsby.’ Pound pointed out across the churning water. ‘He’s better than anyone.’

‘Have you learned nothing from our adventures?’ Sir Henry asked. ‘Our flight through the Spice Islands. The awkward incident with the Danish cannibals. That time we fought off the Norfolk and the Racing Jen, though we were low on powder and out of rum? No-one is better than me.’ He raised his voice for all the crew to hear. ‘No-one is better than us!’

There was a ragged cheer, cut off by the boom of the cannon. Their first shot smashed a chunk from the Headsman‘s aft castle. The cheering returned, louder than before, and Sir Henry laughed in elation.

The King emerged blinking from his cabin, tousled hair glowing like a halo in the rising sun. The cheering turned to a heart-raising ‘God save the King!’

Then there was a crash, a shower of splinters, and half a mast plummeted to the deck, crushing two crewmen.

‘Have at them!’ Sir Henry yelled, trying to turn attention from the wretched bodies. ‘For Charles and England, have at them!’

He turned to the King. ‘What do you suggest, your majesty?’

The monarch blinked at him from beneath loose hanging hair. If Sir Henry hadn’t known better, he would have said there was some confusion about that look.

‘Suggest?’ the King said.

‘About the Commonwealth ship.’

‘Kill them.’ The King’s eyes narrowed with hatred, looking out towards the Headsman as if for the first time. ‘Kill them all.’

‘Very good, your majesty.’ Sir Henry swallowed his disappointment as he turned away. He had hoped for the House of Stuart’s famed inspiration and guidance. But then, the King was hardly a nautical man, was he? And he had at least given them some direction. ‘Kill them all’ it was.

Sir Henry looked over towards the Headsman, her cannon belching smoke and flame, lighting up those skulls like all the demons in hell. Modern cannon, on a modern ship, crafted for the seas that followed the flood. The Bedevere had been through many fights, had sunk the Republican and seized the Word of God, but this was the first time he doubted she could win.

Of course, his majesty’s instruction hadn’t been specific about who to kill, or when. The injunction to ‘kill them all’ surely applied to the whole Commonwealth, and to do that they would need more ships. Though it ran against the immediate spirit of the instruction, it might be better to fetch help.

The parapet to his left exploded in a fury of splinters, needles of wood gouging his arm. He turned in pain and rage. Of course they should fight.

‘Five degrees to port,’ he bellowed. If they could focus their fury on one spot, perhaps they could cripple this Commonwealth shark. ‘All guns target their forward deck. And roll out the Lucifer powder.’

He caught a questioning glance from Pound, who had been scanning the horizon with his telescope. He nodded firmly in reply. They had seized the Lucifer powder from a raft town of Dutch alchemists, who had kept it hidden in old brandy barrels. More powerful than normal black powder, it put a fearsome strain on the guns, and the crew became nervous standing near it. Once broached, the slightest spark could set it off. But this was no time for caution. More than their own glory was at stake here. The life of a monarch lay in their hands.

A monarch who now sat curled up in a gilded seat, lean arms wrapped around his pale legs, rocking back and forth in his night shirt. If looks could have slain, his gaze would have sunk the Headsman as surely as any alchemist’s powder. But for all his firmness of purpose, his demeanour was making Sir Henry uneasy.

‘Captain!’ Pound came thumping up the stairs, powder smoke billowing around him.

‘Mister Pound?’ Sir Henry hurried to intercept him before he caught sight of the King.

‘Over there.’ Pound pointed north-west, held out his telescope.

Sir Henry raised the brass tube to his eye and caught sight of another ship emerging from the early morning gloom, horribly close and unmistakably flying the colours of the Commonwealth.

‘South-south-east as well,’ Pound said, raising his voice to be heard above the cannons’ roar. Sir Henry turned his gaze, caught sight of another two vessels. A shudder of terror ran down his spine.

‘And straight west,’ Pound continued. ‘Also north-north-west, possibly east-south-east, then to the -‘

‘How many in total?’

‘Could be a dozen.’ Pound’s voice was heavy, his fingers urgently twisting his crucifix.

‘How in God’s name are they coordinating it?’

Pound pointed silently to the Headsman‘s rear deck, where an all too familiar black box was mounted on an oak pedestal, a crewman tapping furiously at its keys.

‘Ah.’ Sir Henry sagged. It had somehow never occurred to him that the Commonwealth might also possess the Black Letter. ‘Is any way clear?’

‘North-east looks best.’

‘Then the wind is with us,’ Sir Henry said, his spirits rising. ‘And of course God.’

He looked over his shoulder at the King. To flee hardly fit the monarch’s instructions. But then, there had been a certain ambiguity, and the great kings of history were notorious for putting good intentions above their own safety. He could not allow that. The hope of the nation lay in its King.

He struck a heroic pose, ushering away all doubt. As he moved his arm, tatters of shirt caught at the jagged splinters in his wounds, and he fought not to wince.

‘Mister Pound, even the fleet fox may find glory in the chase.’ His chest swelled with pride at the story this would make. ‘Lay a course to the north-east. We shall see our king free, or we shall die trying.’

Pound blew a series of sharp blasts on his whistle, sending men scurrying up the rigging while others ran to the ropes. Sails billowed and turned, but the wind hissing uselessly through those shredded by cannon fire. They picked up pace, twisting away from the Commonwealth ship, but she turned to pursue, her own sails filling as fast as those of the Bedevere.

The cannons continued to roar, both crews loading bar shot and chain, trying to rip out each other’s sails and rigging. Muskets snapped and a man fell from the main mast, thudding limp and broken on the Bedevere‘s deck. Another cried out and slumped across the ropes, blood pattering onto the boards below.

‘What are you doing?’ The king turned his wild gaze on Sir Henry.

‘A stratagem, your majesty,’ Henry replied. ‘To lure them to their doom.’

It was true, he thought, in a long term way. There would be time for better explanations later, when they weren’t distracted by screams, and by the icy fingers of doubt clutching at his soul. Try as he might, it was getting hard to see the wisdom and inspiration in this man.

The other ships continued to close. Sir Henry clutched the telescope so hard he could feel brass grinding on bones. His heart filled with dread as two of the ships turned, moving faster than he had expected, riding the waves into their escape route.

The slowness of the Bedevere‘s damaged pace was like an awful weight on his chest, crushing the spirit from him as he watched those two vessels slide closer. With God on his side, and a little luck, he might just squeeze past before they were close enough to engage. But it would be a close run thing.

Smoke billowed from one of the ships, a gun’s roar following it across the water. The shot fell just twenty feet short of the Bedevere. As salt spray spattered the masthead, Sir Henry knew that they had been too slow. He slumped, his heart drowned in a wave of defeat.

Gentle as a mistress, Pound took the telescope from his hand and turned it back on the Headsman.

‘They’re running up flags,’ he said. ‘A message.’

Sir Henry lifted heavy eyes to look across the deck. The guns were still, the crew looking up at him, faces grim. His men. His duty.

He took a deep breath, squared his shoulders, forced his most determined look. There must be a way out of this. There was always a way.

‘Something about surrender,’ Pound said. ‘About the crew.’

Sir Henry turned to the King.

‘Perhaps you have an idea, your majesty?’ he asked hopefully. After all, this was the leader of their nation, the ruler of all Britannia. When all else failed, he at least gave hope. ‘Or some stirring words for the men?’

The King glanced around, gaze flitting like a frightened rat.

‘Kill them,’ he hissed. ‘Why haven’t you killed them?’

Sir Henry looked at the bitter, twisted man stood before him, free from a Commonwealth cell but still imprisoned by his own rage. It was only right for a monarch to ask that men die for him, but sometimes there were other ways.

If they were to escape, it would be down to Sir Henry.

He turned his back on King Charles and gazed out across the deck. Beside him, Pound was approaching the rail, his face screwed up into a frown, again toying with his crucifix. That was one thing in his favour, Pound and the rest of the crew. Good men, loyal, skilled, determined, as inspiring to him as he was to them. Then there was the Lucifer powder. And some loot in the hold. Maybe something down there could cause a distraction while they signalled for help. Admiral Caldsby was not the only one who could summon allies.

He grinned. A plan was starting to form. He could do this. If he could just-

‘They say we can live,’ Pound shouted, pointing at the signal flags flying on the Headsman. ‘If…’ He turned to face Sir Henry, eyes full of sorrow. ‘If we give them our passenger. And the Captain.’

Sir Henry stood aghast as his own men murmured their approval.

‘I’m sorry,’ Pound said, ‘but this fix is too much even for you.’

Tears welled up in Sir Henry’s eyes. If they all wanted this, then what else could he do?

‘Very well,’ he said. ‘Signal our surrender.’

#

The noose itched like a sack full of flees. But more frustrating than the itch was being able to do nothing about it. Even if his hands had not been tied behind his back, Sir Henry would have been using them to undo the hangman’s knot, not ease the irritation on his skin. It was maddening to be so helpless, wriggling as uselessly as a fish in a net.

The Bedevere‘s deck was crowded near to over flowing, the Headsman‘s crew lined up to watch him hang. He would have hoped at least for an attentive audience at his demise, but half of them were gawping at the king, bound as he was to the Bedevere‘s main mast. Sir Henry had been appalled at his monarch’s previous incarceration. Having spent time with Charles he felt almost indifferent. He was still awed by the principle of his king, but the reality of the man was a terrible disappointment.

Funny how the mind worked. He should have been looking for ways out, but instead his thoughts had turned inwards. Fear clawed at his soul, yet still the disillusionment was hardest to bear.

Across a few feet of water, his own crew sat on the deck of the Headsman, under guard from a handful of red coated Commonwealth marines. Perhaps Admiral Caldsby feared that weapons were hidden around the Bedevere, and that the surrender was a trick. Perhaps he didn’t want to give them the chance to retake their vessel. Perhaps he just wanted to prove who was in charge. Regardless, his first move had been to separate the men from their ship.

The rest of the Commonwealth fleet had departed, returning to whatever duties occupied Puritan sailors. Probably seizing cargoes of rum and breaking up brothel boats – anything that took the joy out of living.

‘Any last words, Torrent?’ Admiral Caldsby’s eyes were as cold and grey as stone, with a voice to match. He stood statue still in his plain black suit, as un-admiral a figure as Sir Henry had ever seen.

‘Of course.’ If he was to die, Sir Henry would do so with at least a measure of style. He paused for thought, staring over at his captive crew. He couldn’t resent their betrayal. Instead, he felt their disappointment at his own failure, at leading them into this trap. Now they stood captive, waiting to be taken for a more public hanging, while he stood alone, a tired, sweat-stained figure displayed to callous eyes on the top of a powder barrel.

‘Well?’ Caldsby tapped an impatient finger on the rail.

Sir Henry stared down at his feet, at the barrel rocking back and forth as he shifted his weight. The lid was cracked, warped by long storage in rough conditions, and threatened to give way if he stood in one spot too long. The distinctive smell of Lucifer powder tickled his nose. Maybe he could kick a spark off the rim, go out with a bang instead of a gurgle.

Or maybe…

The faintest breeze of an idea ruffled the sails of his mind, leaving optimism in its wake.

‘I feel that my last words need a wider audience.’ He pulled a grin. ‘Perhaps I might use the ship’s Black Letter?’

Caldsby paused in the middle of a sneer, judging Sir Henry with a steady eye. Sir Henry let his shoulders slump, hitched his grin up from confidence into the desperation of a man buying precious seconds.

‘Fine,’ Caldsby said. ‘Let the world know that you are dead. It will make my work easier.’

One of Caldsby’s red coated marines fetched the ship’s black letter and set it down on an old brandy barrel well away from the condemned man. A brandy barrel re-labelled in smudged Dutch.

Sir Henry glanced over at the Headsman. His crew were straining to hear him over the creak of sails and lapping of waves.

‘This reminds me of that time in Port Royal,’ he called out, catching Pound’s eye. ‘When Montagu’s men were after us.’

A look of confusion crossed Pound’s downcast face, then something akin to hope. He leaned in to whisper to Doc Curly.

‘Last words?’ Admiral Caldsby said. ‘Or shall I cut to the death?’

Sir Henry cleared his throat. ‘Brave men of England, grieve not for me.’

The marine tapped away at the keys of the Bedevere‘s battered old black letter. A stray spark flew from the cracked casing. Sir Henry struggled not to laugh, such was his sense of glee. This was it. It was working!

‘I live on not in your memories,’ he continued, watching sparks scatter like the diamonds over the barrel’s battered lid, ‘but on the seas. I shall continue-‘

There was a flash of fire from behind the Black Letter. Sir Henry kicked back off his own barrel just as his body was lifted by the blast. The world turned into one huge, flaming, deafening roar. He hurtled through the air in a maelstrom of flames and splinters, screaming with pain and triumph. Then boards slammed into his back with a crack as loud as the falling masts.

He dragged himself to his feet, trying to shake the ache from his head. A shattered spar lay beside him, still tied to his neck by the length of the noose.

Every inch of him screamed with pain, but he had never felt more exhilarated.

He pulled his legs up to his chest and brought his bound hands past them, around to his front. Wobbling upright, he yanked the rope from around his neck. He was on the Headsman, just as he had intended – planned was too strong a word for this one. But who needed plans when God was on your side?

Down the deck, his crew were wrestling their dazed guards into submission.

Pound strode towards him, a musket in his hand, an embarrassed grin across his face. He said something Sir Henry could not make out over the ringing in his ears. It could have been ‘sorry’, or ‘what now’, or any number of other things.

‘Prepare to set sail,’ he shouted to the first mate. ‘We have a splendid new ship to shake down, and a nation still to save’

Pound pointed off to port, where the broken shell of the Bedevere was sinking. She was a sorry remnant of her former self, half the upper deck and port bow blown away, broken bodies scattered across her timbers. Survivors stumbled useless across the deck, or tried to leap the growing gap to the Headsman, only to be knocked away by her new crew.

It wrenched at Sir Henry’s soul, to see so many memories, so much pride and joy disappear into the hungry deep. His family’s name, his country’s triumph, she had meant all this and more. Tradition could be the wind that filled your sails. But it could be the weight that sank you.

Sir Henry wiped a tear from his eye. ‘Let her go.’

Pound said something more and pointed to the Bedevere‘s deck, where King Charles was screaming frantically for their attention, his voice lost in the roar of flames and grinding of broken timber. Charred and loosened, the ropes binding him to the mast fell away. The king rushed to the rail, waving and shouting, angry and desperate and completely incapable of his own rescue. That bitter vision stirred no patriotic pride in Sir Henry’s heart, no call to action, only a crumbling remnant of guilt.

He shook his head and turned Pound back towards the crew. Smoke blew off the wreck, hiding Charles from view.

‘People need a king,’ Sir Henry said so softly he could barely hear his own words. ‘They don’t need that one.’

‘Then who do we serve?’ Pound asked.

‘The Duke of York is next in line,’ Sir Henry said. ‘A crown is a powerful symbol, one we cannot live without. Let us hope that he is worthy of it.’

He raised his voice to address the crew. ‘To the sails, gentlemen. We have lost our King, but we still have a kingdom to save.’

The sea was carnage, a mass of broken planks and shattered dreams. But as the sails filled, and a salt breeze kissed Sir Henry’s battered brow, it was the most beautiful view he had ever seen.

____________________________________________________

Andrew is a Yorkshire based ghostwriter, responsible for writing many books in other people’s names.  He’s had over fifty stories published in his own name in places such as Daily Science Fiction and Wily Writers.  His steampunk adventure series, The Ephiphany Club, is out no in all e-book formats, and the first volume, Guns and Guano, is available for free from Amazon or Smashwords.  You can find free stories and links to more of his books at andrewknighton.com and follow him on Twitter where he’s @gibbondemon.

 


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