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Off Cap Gris Nez, France, 1750
The sea had gentled overnight. The pirate ship rose from its pewter surface like a hole in the world, black against the stars. She was anchored in the protection of a headland on the French coast, and beyond the grey line where surf met shore, a score of campfires shone yellow as dandelions where half of her crew were making merry with the locals.
"Right, Jones," Conrad whispered. "Off you go. Good luck to you."
Lt. Conrad Herriot, of His Majesty’ s sloop-of-war Valiant, tried to wet his dry mouth by swallowing. He’ d been entrusted with both the planning and the execution of this operation, and the responsibility lay heavily on him. Having led the convoy of boats around from the other side of the headland, where Valiant lay hidden, waiting for his signal, he watched Jones and his men pull away. Oars muffled, dark coats and black-painted boat all but invisible in the night, they disappeared fast as they swung around, intending to appear to the pirates as if they were rowing out from the coast.
From aboard the pirate shipa captured man-of-war the Valiant had no wish to engage in a plain fightcame the sounds of pistol shots, laughter and the stuck-pig shriek of a man screaming in agony. A faint, shrill pipe and the rhythm of a fife and drum blew in snatches on the wind. The pirates must have been dancing while their victim sobbed. Just behind Conrad, Tom muttered in horror and Conrad had to reach out and squeeze his arm to hush him.
They’ d been forever holding station in the winter chill when at last a smoky orange blaze kindled beyond the pirate ship, streaking the sea with amber. Something aflame, moving against the tide, came drifting towards the bow of the man-of-war. The lookout had seen it too. The sound of the fife choked off midnote, and Conrad’ s little fleet of black boats pulled hard and quiet on the oars.
Up on deck, the pirates were crowding to the heads, running for poles to fend off the strange floating fire. Jones and his men chopped boarding axes into the ship’ s hull, tied their boat to them and swam for the main chains, leaving the tar barrel in their boat to set all alight.
Meanwhile Conrad had reached the stern of the ship and was swarming up, his men behind him, Tomas alwaysat his shoulder. They reached the rail, exchanged a glanceif we don’ t make it, it’ s been an honour fighting beside youand rolled silently over.
Barefoot, clad in black, they’ d blacked even the blades of their knives with soot. The pirates, bunched up together, staring out at the bright light, didn’ t see them coming until the first rank had fallen with their throats cut. Then the lookout regained his night vision, saw them and yelled. The next rank were turning, drawing weapons when they were butcheredit was less clean this time, long knives hacking at protecting arms, slashing and wounding.
Surprise lost, Conrad dropped his knife and drew his pistols. He fired twice, taking out two men and giving himself space to draw his sword. Then it was close combat, a ringing blur of panic and steel. No time for thought, only for jabbing, reacting, seeing spaces and moving into them, with the luxury of knowing that his back was covered. Tom was next to him, and together they were invulnerable.