In his attempt to return to the twenty-sixth century, historian and time traveler Noel Kedran is transported back to the Caribbean in 1697, where black-masted ships rule the treacherous seas and murderous pirates kill without mercy.
Stalked by enemies—including his evil twin, Leon—Noel fights to prevent a human sacrifice that could change history, and to stop his twisted twin before he destroys them both for a few glittering, golden pieces of eight.
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Flung heedlessly through time once more, by the malfunction that held him trapped in the past, historian Noel Kedran materialized in the middle of a raging sea battle with his hands locked around his worst enemy's throat.
His own gray eyes glared up at him; his face, like and yet unlike, glowered and snarled curses at him. He felt as though he were fighting himself, and for a second he was disoriented, confused. As though sensing Noel's distraction, Leon Nardek — his twisted, malevolent twin who had been cloned by an error in the time stream and now stayed somehow joined to Noel in his time travels — jerked and twisted in Noel's grasp, struggling to break free.
"Let me go!" shouted Leon in the din of shouts and crashing swords. "Damn you! Let me go!"
Noel tightened his grip on Leon's throat with a fury that left him blind to the mayhem raging around them. "Never! I'm putting an end to you once and for all."
Leon spat in his face. Instinctively Noel recoiled, and Leon almost succeeded in squirming free. Noel threw himself bodily across his duplicate, pinning him down and ignoring the blows Leon struck to his head and shoulders before he got both hands around Leon's throat again.
"... won't kill me. You ... haven't the guts ..." said Leon, gasping now. His eyes held fear, the cornered rat's kind of fear. "You want to ... reform me, make me ... like you —"
"Shut up!" Sick disgust and contempt welled up inside Noel. "You've meddled once too often, caused one too many innocent deaths. Never again."
As he spoke, he bashed Leon's head against the wooden deck. Leon's face twisted with pain. His fingers clawed at Noel's shoulders.
Noel heaved him up to bash him again, but there came the roar of cannon fire. The deck beneath them bucked and shuddered. Flung flat, Noel lost his grip on Leon, who scuttled away on his hands and knees. Noel started after him, but there was another roar, like thunder echoing across the ocean. The deck shuddered again, and Noel fell.
Only then did he truly become aware of his surroundings. The noise itself was deafening: hoarse voices shouted threats and fearful curses; screams of pain and cries for mercy mingled with the boom of cannon fire and the queer whistling sound of flying ammunition.
Nails, bits of chain, and fragments of sharp metal hailed onto the deck near Noel, cutting down a pair of half-naked men fighting with cutlasses. Screaming and bloodied, both men fell.
"Grape shot!" shouted someone. "They're sweeping the deck with grape shot! God preserve us, and somebody spike that nine-pounder!"
The whistling sound came again. Noel ducked instinctively and looked around for cover, but there was none. The deck was flat, without any kind of structure built on it. Most of the men not fighting were huddled up against the curve of the gunwales.
Tall masts towered overhead against the starlit sky. Sails flapped limply from the halyards. Noel could hear an awful groaning noise from stressed timbers; he realized the sound was coming from the ship itself.
Sails ... wooden ships ... men in pigtails and wide canvas trousers ... Noel tried to make sense of his surroundings. Where on earth was he this time? When was he?
White smoke like dense fog choked the scene. Men scampered through it like demons, brandishing swords, pistols, daggers, and torches. Some carried boarding axes. Brilliant flashes of light cut through the darkness momentarily, bringing the simultaneous roar of cannon fire. Something heavy whistled overhead and landed with a splashing thunk in the water on the other side.
The deck beneath Noel's feet heaved and swung, and through the combined stench of blood, gunpowder, tar pitch, and fire, he smelled the dank saltiness of the sea itself.
Despite the danger surrounding him, Noel realized that Leon was confined to this ship the same as he. No matter where Leon hid, there was only a few hundred feet to search. He would find his murdering, cowardly duplicate, and he would finish him.
A shape loomed from the smoke and darkness, and the flat of a cutlass struck Noel down. The stinging slap of steel across his back hurt like blazes, and Noel barely managed to roll in time to avoid another swipe of the weapon.
"What be ye gawkin' at, ye sniveling coward?" roared a voice like gravel. "We've a ship to take, aye, and booty to plunder. Get to yer feet and board that damned merchantman, ye good for nothin' piece of cod fodder! Stand up and fight, or I'll have yer guts for my cummerbund!"
Noel took a good look at that fierce, bearded face and saw a black kerchief tied over the head, a chest as big as a barrel, and booted legs like young tree trunks. The cutlass whistled at him again, and Noel scrambled away.
He ran full-tilt into a cluster of men. One of them grabbed his arm and shoved him roughly forward.
"Where's yer knife, ye knave?"
"Hah! He's goin' to his Maker. Have a dagger, bucko!"
Noel reached gratefully for the weapon, but another man grabbed his wrist and shoved him back.
"He's none of ours! Send him over!"
With shouts they lifted Noel over the gunwales.
For one panicked instant he thought they were throwing him into the water. "Wait!" he said in alarm.
But instead they shoved him out onto the long bowsprit. Noel looked down and saw black ocean heaving between the hulking bodies of the two ships. The view made him dizzy. He clung to the hewn wood and closed his eyes.
Someone swooped over him from behind, grabbed him by the collar, and dragged him forward. He caught a confused glimpse of bare legs, callused feet, and a gleaming sword tip before he was hurled bodily through a tangle of cut rigging and fell to the deck below.
"Repel new boarders!" shouted a bugle-clear voice.
Musket fire rang out, puffs of smoke dancing in the darkness, and the whippet-fast rattle of lead balls whizzed past Noel's head.
He ducked and pressed himself flat to the deck of the merchant ship, hugging the shadows between the gunwales and the poop cabin. Without a weapon he had no intention of getting caught up in this mess. Worse, now he was on the wrong ship. Somehow he had to get back and find Leon, but he dared not try with musket balls whizzing in all directions. Dying in the past was not one of his goals.
But the fighting surged his way, and two men battling to the death pressed close to his hiding place. One of them, silhouetted in the smoke and darkness with a mane of long hair and layers of pale lace at his throat and wrists, tripped over Noel's foot and fell on top of him.
The man's opponent thrust his sword hard through the fallen man's body and into the deck planking — perhaps only an inch away from Noel's thigh. Paralyzed in the shadows, Noel lay frozen beneath the dead man. Then the victor withdrew his blade, and blood spilled hot across Noel's stomach and legs.
Despite himself, Noel could not hold back a gasp. The pirate heard and swung back.
"Eh?" he said. "Are ye still dying, then, ye dandified cockerel?"
He raised his arm to thrust again, a black shape looming against the sky. Frantically, Noel fumbled through the darkness and seized the dead man's sword. He brought it up just in time to counter the blow, and the clang of steel against steel jolted his arm all the way to the elbow.
"Mother of God!" gasped the pirate, stumbling back and crossing himself. "Do the dead fight on?"
Desperate, Noel seized the opportunity and let out a bloodÂcurdling yell. "I want your soul! I'll eat it in hell!"
The pirate staggered back from him and ran. Noel let him go.
In the distance more cannon fire opened up. Noel looked out across the dark water and saw another ship approaching the two locked together in combat. Wreathed in the smoke from her own guns, moonlight shining white upon her billowing sails, the newcomer came up fast, gliding over the black waves with a foamy cleaving of water under her bows. White puffs erupted from her fore guns, and more cannonballs whistled by. One of them plunked into the pirate ship with a horrendous crash that sent planks and splinters flying. Men screamed, and a drum roll sounded.
The pirates withdrew, falling back quickly. Many swarmed the rigging and used ropes to swing across the distance between the two ships. The rest scuttled back across the bowsprit. One man slipped in his hurry and fell screaming into the sea.
Shouting with encouragement, the merchantman's crew swarmed to the gunwales, firing their muskets at the departing pirates.
For an instant Noel thought he saw Leon on the other ship among the men, shouting and waving a sword. Sails were hoisted, flapping wildly, then swelling with wind. The pirate ship slid away, her bowsprit scraping horribly upon the timbers of the ship Noel stood on.
He ran forward, anxious to get back across before he was left behind. But just as he scrambled awkwardly into the tattered remains of the rigging, seeking to climb up to the bowsprit, a hand clutched his shirt from behind and pulled him down.
"No!" said Noel, twisting in his captor's hold.
A club hammered him between his shoulder blades, driving him to his knees. "You'll not escape so easily, you insolent puppy," growled a voice. "You're going to hang for this night's work."
In an instant Noel comprehended the new danger surrounding him. Still on his knees, he turned and slashed with his sword.
His opponent parried with the club, and Noel's sword broke. Before Noel could flee, the seaman swung again.
The club crashed into Noel's temple. For an instant, fireworks seemed to explode across the sky. Then all went black.
He awakened to heat and a dazzling expanse of sun-reflected water. His lips were rimmed with the sour remains of vomit. His parched tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth. Groaning faintly, he managed to roll over.
The clank of chains brought him to full consciousness. He stared at the heavy steel shackle on his wrist and tried to recall what had happened. Bits of memory floated his way, but before he could piece them together, water came sluicing over him in a drowning torrent.
Burning with thirst, he opened his mouth to catch some of it, only to spit it out at once. It was seawater, warm and briny. It sloshed across the deck beneath him and went gurgling over the side.
Noel sat up as another blast of water hit him. Choking and sputtering, he slung back his dripping hair and saw that the seamen had turned a pump on him and the other prisoners chained together on the deck.
The man next to him was rawboned and burned dark with sun. One eye was milky white with blindness; the other squinted balefully. Barefooted and clad in a pair of knee breeches and a tattered shirt, he was scarred and filthy. Despite the glower of defiance on his face, however, his hands were clenched until the knuckles showed white.
Overhead, the masts seemed to reach to the blue sky. There wasn't a puff of wind, and the sails hung limp. This ship floated in place, becalmed or anchored, Noel couldn't tell. Beside them was another ship, a small sloop smartly rigged. The British Union Jack drooped from her mast.
Noel swallowed hard. Pirates, he was thinking rapidly. British ships. That meant mid-seventeenth or early eighteenth century. Although Noel's specialty was ancient Rome, he'd been trained at the Time Institute to recognize any distinctive era of the past. This was an era of cruelty, swift punishment, and backbreaking labor. Lives were held cheap.
"They're ready, sir!" shouted a voice in a broad British accent.
An officer of the Royal Navy strolled up the line of prisoners. Bewigged and wearing a tall tricorne hat, he glittered with corded gold braid, brass buttons, and a polished sword. Snowy linen ruffles foamed at his wrists and throat. His blue, full-skirted coat reached to his knees, and his pale stockings were immaculate.
Hoping his Light Operated Computer was recording everything, Noel felt an involuntary thrill at seeing history come alive. As the officer approached, Noel could see his face. It was a beaky, angular one, drawn tight and stern. The officer's eyes shifted, studying the prisoners. He whipped a thin rattan cane across the chest and shoulders of any man who didn't instantly rise at his approach.
The one-eyed pirate beside Noel scrambled up well ahead of time, and Noel did the same. When the officer reached Noel, he stopped and stared. He had the fair type of skin that doesn't tan. His nose was sunburned and peeling. His eyes were a pale, colorless blue. They might have been chips of stone, for all the expression they held.
Having been yanked from the New Mexico Territory by a sabotaged time stream warped out of control, Noel was aware that his cowboy clothing of long-sleeved shirt, bandanna, long sturdy trousers, and high- heeled boots was markedly different from anything of this era. He hadn't identified yet what his LOC was disguised as, but he knew it had to be somewhere on his person.
The officer's voice was high-pitched and so clipped Noel almost didn't understand what he'd said.
When he failed to immediately answer, the officer slashed Noel's leg viciously with the cane. The sting made Noel suck in his breath.
The cane slashed him again. "You will call me sir."
The pulse in Noel's temples beat faster. He barely managed to control his temper. "Noel Kedran ... sir."
Noel frowned. "Not exactly. I'm not a —"
The cane struck. "I did not ask for a long-winded explanation. Answer the questions put to you with directness and brevity. Clear?"
Noel dropped his eyes, seething but aware that he had to keep his anger in check. "Yes ... sir."
The officer walked on, but Noel's desperation was like something writhing in his throat. He couldn't hold it back.
"I'm not a pirate!" he said to the officer's back.
Someone in the line chuckled. The prisoners stirred, rolling their eyes at each other.
The officer glanced back. "That remains to be seen. Show your papers, all of you!"
Of the dozen men chained, only four fumbled out any papers. The one- eyed man next to Noel had a set. Noel stared at them with curiosity and a rising sense of dread, but he couldn't read the blurred writing on the grimy foolscap.
The one-eyed pirate assumed a military stance, squaring his shoulders and tucking in his chin. "Here ye are, sir," he said smartly. "Forced, I was. Made to pirate against me will."
A man in a plain crimson coat and matching breeches joined the officer. Older, he wore a long curly wig that fell to his shoulders and a broad-brimmed hat turned up on one side and pinned with a brooch, cavalier style.
"These men must all hang, Lieutenant Thurston," he said. His voice was a clear tenor that rang out briskly. "They are scurrilous dogs, murderers, and cutthroats. Not a single man among them deserves mercy."
The pirates muttered angrily and shook their chains.
"Shut your traps!" shouted a seaman. Garbed in short wide trousers and a pigtail, he took the greasy papers and handed them to Thurston. While the lieutenant examined the documents, the seaman glowered at the one-eyed pirate. "Navy, were you?"
"Aye!" the pirate said. "Served aboard the Driscoll under Captain — "
"Then you're a damned mutineer!" accused the seaman. "I heard the sad tale of that crew, Lieutenant. They hanged the officers, then deserted and joined with those accursed buccaneers down in Jamaica."
The one-eyed man turned pale. "I never did by choice. God's my witness, sir, there's my paper to prove I was forced. They'd have cut my throat if I hadn't — "
"That will do," Thurston said curtly. He thrust the papers back.
"Lieutenant," the civilian in red said anxiously, "you must not show leniency. Set an example with these wretches. Give their brothers pause."
"Captain Miller," Thurston replied wearily, "we are quite aware that pirate captains will give any cowardly deserter articles of force for protection in case of recapture. These papers mean nothing."
"God's my witness, sir, but I was forced!" cried the one-eyed pirate desperately. He seized Noel's arm. "Ye heard this man say the same. Have pity on us, sir. Have pity!"
Even Noel could see that his pleas hurt his cause more than they helped. Noel gripped his wrist to quiet him, and the lieutenant noticed.
"Are you the leader of these men?"
"What difference does it make?" Miller asked before Noel could answer. "Hang them from the yardarm and be done with it."
The lieutenant's thin nostrils flared in distaste. "You may be content to sail along with carrion swinging from your rigging, but I am not. These men will be hanged in Port Royal, with proper sentencing and documentation of their names."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Pieces of Eight"
Copyright © 1992 Deborah Chester.
Excerpted by permission of Diversion Publishing Corp..
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