Chapter One – Red Sky in the Morning

I’ve mentioned this book fairly often in my blog – it’s the one that led to me signing with my agent – but somehow I’ve never shared any of it on my blog. To correct that, here’s the entire first chapter, even the brief prologue. It’s about Blackbeard and you can read more about my inspiration for this project here.


 

At Sea, March 1717

 

Nothing shines like the edge of a sword. I lay aside the whetstone and oiled cloth, scrutinising my work. The candlelight flickers along the honed blade, shattering into pinpoints where the edge has sustained a small chip. This scar serves as proof that it has seen battle, though the sword’s greatest triumphs have come through cleaving air, not flesh.

I hold the blade closer to the flame, inspecting it. A sword can scowl, in the right light, and that’s why the weapon suits me. When I raise the sword and snarl, my brash words as cutting as the blade, men cower back as if the Devil himself lurked behind me. Exactly the reaction I plan for.

I set the sword down and push the candle away until the blade lies in shadow. Listening to the rhythm of the waves lapping against the hull, I lean back in my chair and evaluate how an improved ship could be as useful of a tool for me as this sword. God knows I can never stop thinking of my reputation, and the threatening advance of a large, well-armed ship will strike fear even to the hearts of brave men. When I find such a ship, it will be mine for the taking, my own glorious legacy.

 

Chapter One – Red Sky in the Morning

September 1717 – Nassau, New Providence

No one has called me by my name in a long time. Usually it’s Captain, or sir, or just Blackbeard. I cultivated that title myself. A few people call me Ned, though I won’t allow it from just anyone. Last week, I let Stede Bonnet, that foppish spark, call me Ned. He says the name a bit smugly, like it shows we’re equals in this business. Like it shows he’s not afraid of me. And that’s a bloody lie. Even more than most men, Bonnet is easier to daunt than a puppy, and more persuadable than a government lackey when confronted with a jingling purse.     Now though, the softness of a feminine voice rings in my ear. Edward, she says. I stop walking, and turn to look at her.

“Mr. Teach?” Her cheeks are flushed pink, and she drops her blue eyes for a moment, embarrassed by her lapse in manners in calling a stranger by his Christian name.

I let my eyes wander over her, taking in the expensive cloth of her dress – blue silk, good quality – and the gilded locket at her throat. It matches her hair, gold like morning sunshine, and swept up into a knot at the back of her head. The loose curls around her face flutter in the breeze moving along the wharf. Pale pink ribbon decorates her dress, drawing attention to her narrow waist and the swell of her bosom. The dress has a high collar though; this one’s a lady. I’m surprised that she has impulsively called out to me on the street, and by my first name, no less.

“What is it, sweetheart?”

The blush extends down her throat, disappearing under the aforementioned collar, and blossoms across her cheeks and up to her forehead. She looks like a pink rose. I smile at her. My teeth look very white against the blackness of my beard, I know. People never expect me to smile, but I do. Frequently, in fact. The girl responds to the smile. She’s still surprised by her own boldness, it looks like, but her posture changes, growing coy now. She shifts so the curve of her hip shows clearly against the full blue skirt.

“You dropped your handkerchief.” She proffers the white cloth to me, her lashes lowered.

I take it. The crisp white cotton smells lightly of lavender. It isn’t mine.

“Thank you, milady.”

Not noticing my mocking use of the title, she smiles, and her eyes meet mine for a moment. Soft and blue, the shade of her eyes reminds me of the deep ocean. She hesitates, as if she has something to say, but I touch the brim of my three-cornered hat to her. I see her chaperones approaching – a dour man and a thin-lipped woman. The girl must have evaded them for a moment or two, but they have caught up to her now.

Tucking the handkerchief into the pocket of my scarlet coat, I continue strolling along the wharf. She’s lovely, certainly, but well-born. Too much trouble, considering I can get a girl at Madame Felicia’s anytime I have coins to spare.

God knows what that girl is even doing here. Nassau is no place for respectable people. Her father, or husband, is a wealthy merchant, probably – a few of them show up on the island of New Providence, looking to buy looted goods to resell elsewhere. I make use of such men often.

I touch the handkerchief in my pocket, after rounding a corner. It is a pleasant surprise, anyway. Most young ladies are warned not to be seen with me. Maybe that is why this particular girl wanted to speak to me. Sometimes women like dangerous men. I don’t know why it’s so, but I do qualify. Doubtless, the woman chaperone is lecturing the girl now, probably pulling her in the opposite direction while voicing shrill warnings – though I would never be caught turning back to look.

If this is the only surprise of the day, I shall be glad, because any other is likely to be unpleasant.

Ben is waiting when I arrive at the tavern. Nassau has nearly as many taverns as it does scoundrels, and not much else. New Providence was a Spanish island, but they neglected it so long that the English stepped in and formally declared it to be their territory, along with North and South Carolina. They’ve neglected New Providence, too – what small settlement existed was plundered by the Spanish eight years ago, and the English never lifted a finger. The pirates have claimed it now, instead, and we don’t stay on land too long. There’s no work here for us; the pirate republic is a place to blow off steam, to conduct business that needs to be done on land, and then to leave.

Ben and I are meeting Stede Bonnet at The Lonely Shepherdess later. Stede probably chose it because of the fanciful name, but I don’t mind. The Shepherdess is one of the best places. Another popular locale is The Hog and Wench, so called because it specialises in pork pies and plentiful female company, but the Shepherdess is cleaner, and fights break out less often.

I blink to accustom my eyes to the tavern’s dim light, and inhale the smell of smoke and ale. It’s blessedly cool after the sticky heat of the air outside. Commodore Benjamin Hornigold sits in the corner, scarred hand wrapped around a tankard of rum, staring out the window, toward the beach. He swivels his gaze toward me right away – Ben might appear to be daydreaming, but he always knows what’s going on around him. It does not pay to be unobservant – a man’s liable to get his throat cut that way. Ben taught me that the second day I joined his crew, when he caught me sorting through the apple barrel. It is a treat to have apples on board – I get sick of bland hard tack and rice – so I made sure the softer apples were on top, to keep them from rotting and spoiling the rest of the fruit. Ben crept up behind me, so quiet even I did not hear him until the last moment. My heart fair froze in my chest when he whipped out his dagger, but once he was satisfied I wasn’t thieving, he seemed impressed. I knew he watched me after that, so a few days later, I climbed into the rigging to loosen and spread the sails to increase our speed. It was the right thing to do in the circumstances, and I’d overheard him discussing it with the quartermaster, but Ben hadn’t given the order yet. I took a risk there. He might have seen it as impudence, but instead he coupled the two events together and told me I was arrogant, but resourceful, clever, and far-thinking, and kept me close after that.

I’m not exactly part of his crew anymore. Last year, Ben put me in charge of a single-masted sloop he took as a prize, called the Adventure. We’re partners now.

“Been waiting long?” I sit down across from him.

He shakes his head. He has taken off his hat, and his hair is flattened down over his forehead. He looks a bit like the figurehead on a ship, if there was ever a captain mixed-up enough to choose a male figurehead instead of a luscious long-haired woman. His lean face is craggy, lined and leathery from years of the sun and sea spray, and his sandy coloured hair has faded and greyed until it looks a bit dusty, even after he’s just come from the bath house.

“I don’t suppose Stede told you why he wanted to talk with us.” I remove my hat as well, but leave on the dark red bandana wrapped around my head.

“Not precisely.” His accent is cleaner than mine, with clipped English vowels. Sometimes I can still hear the Norfolk lilt, but he has made a point over the years of smoothing his pronunciation, so that his mish-mashed crew can understand him. I haven’t lost my Bristol accent, though I have been in the Caribbean for nigh on two decades. “Business, I suppose. I expect he has a proposition of some sort for us.”

I grin – the two of us are a formidable team on the seas. With Ben’s experience and wisdom, and my recklessness and cunning, I see why Stede Bonnet might want to align his interests with ours. Ben in particular has strong connections to the Flying Gang, the loosely-tied group of pirates who make base out of Nassau.

“You are probably right. What he knows of this life would fill a rum bottle – with the cork still in it. When I heard that he purchased his sloop, I nearly choked to death with laughter. A pirate, buying a ship?” I shake my head, making no attempt to hide my derision. “Little wonder if he wants our help in some way.”

Ben fights back a smile. “It is to our benefit, Ned. We should thank the Lord for Mr. Bonnet’s naiveté.”

“I’ll thank the Devil,” I say. He is on my flag, after all. “It seems to me that the Lord is not looking out for ‘Captain’ Bonnet, considering his string of bad luck.”

Ben leans forward, his watery blue eyes alight with interest.

I sense that he’s willing to engage in a philosophical religious discussion – Ben likes those – and quickly keep talking. “I hope he tells us more about his narrow escape from a Spanish man o’war on the way here. The bullet wound in his shoulder was a close call.”

“Not to mention the knock he took to the head, and the cutlass slash on his leg,” says Ben. “I suspect that is why he might be looking for an alliance with us. Not because of his inexperience, but because of his wounds.”

In my opinion, Bonnet was half-disabled as a pirate captain already, but now his body is crippled along with his power and command. Yes, possibilities abound here.  An alliance with an inexperienced fool like Bonnet could be valuable, and simple to achieve. He’s like a barnyard hen scratching around near the shadows, oblivious to the hungry lurking fox.

The barmaid flounces by, and Ben beckons to her.  “Get him a rum,” he tells her, pointing to me.

She bobs her head. “Of course, sir.”

“They are always more polite to you,” I say in an undertone.

“I daresay I am not as frightening as you are,” says Ben dryly.

“I was going to chalk it up to your age. Everyone respects a grandfatherly figure.”

Ben had been about to sip his drink, and he grins now, slamming the tankard back onto the table.

“Is that so, Captain Teach?”

“Indeed it is,” I say solemnly. “The barmaids and whores, especially. They see you and reckon themselves safe.”

Ben sputters with outraged laughter. “Lies and falsehoods! I’m only ten years older than you. Well, fifteen.”

I doubt Ben would allow most people to poke fun at him the way I am, but we know each other well. “Perhaps, but I don’t have a single grey hair. You won’t be calling me Greybeard for a long while.”

“Not so long as there’s tar available,” he retorts.

I grin. “I do not need to use tar to darken my hair or beard. What do you think, venerable Commodore, shall we get food?” I wave down the barmaid again.

She brings bowls full of stew that smells good, even though it’s a bit thin, and fresh enough bread, just as Stede Bonnet finally arrives.

To be fair, it probably took him a while to walk here. His leg wound was the least severe of them all, he told me last week, but still bad enough to give him a noticeable limp. He looks a proper gentleman, dressed in a blue velvet frock coat, dark breeches, and a powdered wig. He even has a pocket watch – for now. He’ll have to keep an eye out for pickpockets in Nassau.

“Good to see you, Ben.” Stede beams, truly delighted. “And you, too, Ned.” He sits down at our table.

I puzzle over the fact that he uses our first names so flippantly after such a short acquaintance. Mr. Bonnet is gentry. He inherited a plantation in Barbados, and had a wife and children. He gave all that up for the life of a pirate, though he was wealthy enough already. God knows why; the freedom calls to us all, I suppose. Maybe that is why Stede Bonnet speaks so familiarly – he recognises the kindred spirit in each pirate and uses it to push away the societal strictures of his old life. I suppose I should be glad he does not talk down his thin gentleman’s nose to us. Sipping my rum, I wonder if I may have judged him too harshly. I do make quick judgements on men, though I am often right. The skill has served me well throughout my life.

“Have a drink,” I say, pushing the cup toward him. Last time the girl came by, I made sure she brought a rum in advance for Stede. I want to be companionable, to make sure he sees Ben and I are worth working with. I’m pretending to be drunker than I am, to seem companionable and relaxed. Influencing Stede Bonnet is more important than enjoying the rum.

“How are your wounds healing up?” I inquire.

Blinking self-consciously, he touches the side of his head. His curled wig hides the goose egg, if he still has one. From the careful way he turns his head, I think he does still have a headache. He moves stiffly, too, so as not to jostle his injured shoulder.

“I believe I am on the mend, thank you.”

“Glad to hear it.”

“I hope you can say the same for the Revenge,” says Ben, referring to Bonnet’s sixty-ton sloop, the one he purchased. She was badly damaged when he encountered the Spanish man o’ war, and Stede lost half his crew as well.

“Yes, the repairs were finished today. I decided to arm her with twelve guns this time, instead of six.”

“A wise decision,” agrees Ben.

Tracing my fingers over the initials someone has carved into the wooden tabletop, I silently applaud Stede’s decision. Perhaps he is not quite so foolish as he appears. I have been thinking of equipping the Adventure with more cannon. I still have only six guns. The extra weight would slow her down a mite, but the firepower would be worth it.

“I have replaced the crew members who perished in the encounter,” continues Stede. “I have seventy men, now. I thought it would take longer to find enough sailors, but I was happily mistaken.”

“No shortage of sailors nor crooks ‘round here,” I say.

Stede smiles thinly. “Yes, quite.” He pauses. “I believe many of them were encouraged to join because I offer steady wages.”

Ben and I carefully avoid eye contact. Along with the fact that Stede Bonnet bought his flagship, it is a source of amusement among more seasoned pirates that he pays his crew wages, rather than offering a share of the plunder. Even if I had enough money lying around to steadily provide it to my crew, it’s not a choice I would ever make. I want the men to be motivated when I ask them to run down a ship.

“I am glad you are nearly ready to leave port again,” says Ben neutrally.

“Thank you.” Stede ceases the nervous plucking at the lace on his sleeves. He seems relieved that we did not comment upon his uncommon notions about recruitment. He has rather delicate features, or maybe the size of the wig makes them appear so. Either way, he looks easy to boss around.

“Where are you bound for, once you take to the sea again?” I ask casually, but I am very interested in his reply. I take my compass out of my jacket pocket, and place it on the table. I’m really just fiddling, but it gives the impression that I am already planning my next expedition. Which is true, but I want Stede to know it.

“I have not yet decided.” Stede hesitates, and then apparently decides to just get the words over with, nearly tripping over his tongue.  “I am rather inexperienced, as you know, and my encounter with the Spanish man o’war was a grim reminder. I would welcome your advice.” He glances briefly at Ben, and then fastens his hopeful-looking gaze on me.

I repress the smile that wants to come to my lips. I have plans to use Stede, but apparently cunning is not a necessity to outwit him. He trusts me already. “I intend to sail toward Bermuda. You might do the same. It is mostly open sea from here to there, and good hunting ground. I expect my crew will be willing, and yours likely will be, too.”

Ben straightens in his seat, casting a shrewd gaze in my direction. He does not interrupt, but he has not managed to hide his indignant surprise. I haven’t told Ben about my plans to sail toward Bermuda. As partners, we usually sail together, taking our fleet of two sloops to the same destination. I have had a good tip, though, from a reliable source, that a laden merchantman is soon to be travelling from Bermuda to Europe. I do not wish to pass over this opportunity, no matter what Ben’s plans are.

Stede hasn’t noticed Ben’s reaction, focused as he is on his own angle in this conversation. He leans forward, large eyes bright with interest.

I sip my drink, ignoring Ben’s accusing glare, and turn my attention back to Stede Bonnet. Thus far, this is going exactly the way I hoped it would.

“I shall take your advice,” decrees Stede. “I am grateful to you for sharing your greater experience in these matters. I am sure I could learn more from you.”

“I cannot deny I have my share of experience,” I say, grinning genially. I push the compass aside and rest my hand on the handle of one of the three pistols I am currently carrying.

“You have been a captain for a year, am I correct?” asks Stede. His eyes flick from the pistol back to my face. The look of wary respect on his face deepens – just what I want to see.

“Yes.” I jerk my head toward Ben, but don’t look at him. “I joined Captain – Commodore, now – Hornigold’s crew two springs ago – met him here in Nassau, in fact. A few months later, he put me in charge of the Adventure, which we took as a prize. I have been a sailor most of my life, and a pirate ever since the end of Queen Anne’s war. Many of us sailors did turn pirate, then, you know. When England made peace with Spain and France, it put thousands of legitimate privateers out of work.”

Ben’s thin lips press into a frown. He remains more passionate than most over the end of the war, still refuses to attack English ships. He was particularly zealous about attacking Spanish and French ships during the war, fearing their unification under a Bourbon monarch. I was always a little more focused on which countries would gain control of the Colonies, since the balance of power there would affect our lives in the Caribbean rather more.

“You must have been only a lad when you turned sailor,” says Stede. “A life at sea…” He rotates the tankard of rum gently along the rough tabletop, his eyes a bit unfocused now. Dreams can do that, but I wonder if he should be drinking so much rum with the knock to the head he took recently. If he is soused as well as foolish, it works even better in my favour, however.

“The best life there is,” I say softly. I do mean it – there’s scarcely a moment of my life I would change, and I have never regretted my life at sea – but the words are inspiring to Stede. “You made the right choice when you wrested yourself away from that dull plantation for the allure and adventure of the sea. A brave choice. A man’s choice.”

Stede blinks, and his green eyes clear a bit. He straightens, looking pleased. He must have doubted his decision in the past weeks, after the near-disaster of his last pirate attack.

“I did,” he says firmly. “I wish I had chosen this life long ago. Ah well, better late than never.”

“Quite,” says Ben, the first word he has had time to fit into the conversation in a while.

Stede dips his chin in a single nod, but barely glances at him. He is still speaking to me. “Perhaps we could work together,” he says.

I crack my knuckles, and take a long, rewarding drink from my tankard of rum. This is the moment I’ve been angling for.

“Maybe we could. What are your terms?”

Stede does not hesitate before his reply, showing that he has considered this beforehand. “My small amount of experience matters the most in terms of authority,” he says carefully. “I wish it were not so, but my crew does not respect me as much as they should. I have been forced to rely on my quartermaster for his knowledge and experience; it weakens me in the eyes of my men.”

“I guess it would,” I say, burying my scorn under a matter-of-fact nod.

“My wounds do not help my authority, either, half-crippled as I am. And I think the defeat against the Spanish man o’war would have been prevented had my crew been less fragmented,” continues Stede doggedly, though he has grown faintly red. It is not easy for a man to admit to his shortcomings; a small part of me admires him for doing it, even while I am eager to take advantage of those weaknesses.

Ben speaks up. “What you need is a man who can command your crew effectively, who will take your wishes into account.”

“Yes, precisely,” says Stede, brightening again. “Captain Teach, would you do the honour?”

This is working out better than I ever dreamed it would. Turns out the second surprise of the day is pleasant, after all. I would prefer if Ben wasn’t resentful, but it cannot be helped. Stede clearly wants me to instruct him in piracy, and I damn well intend to do it.

“I shall. With your permission, I will take over the Revenge, and we will capture ships together, sharing the plunder.”

A broad grin splits Stede’s face, making him look innocent and youthful. He’s already about seven years younger than me, I reckon, and the boyish smile makes him look nearer twenty-five than thirty.

“Excellent,” he exclaims. “I should like to have our agreement in writing –” he breaks off, cheeks flushing crimson. “Or perhaps we could simply discuss the details now.”

I raise my eyebrows, amused. “I can read and write, you know.”

“I did not know,” admitted Stede. “If I may, you do not seem like an educated man on first impression.”

“Captain Teach is full of surprises,” says Ben, his tone cutting.

“Aye, I am,” I say equably. I have no intention of arguing with Ben now, in front of our new ally.

Stede produces a roll of parchment from the inside of his coat and unwraps a stub of charcoal from a handkerchief.

“It is difficult to carry ink,” he mutters. “This will have to do.”

“It’ll be fine.”  I’m eager to discuss the details, and I do not much care about what he writes down. Just because I am literate does not show my signature means anything special. Actions count for more than words.

“In matters of decision-making, I will defer to your greater experience,” says Stede, scribbling away. “I would like to be consulted, however. Is this acceptable?”

“It is.” Fortunately he does not appear to notice the humour in my tone – he looks just like a barrister or a bookkeeper, squinting at the paper the way he is. He has a long way to go before his crew will see him as a true pirate captain – if they ever do.

“This will include matters of discipline,” continues Stede.

“Fine. When it comes to dividing profits, I want forty percent of your share of everything the Revenge takes.”

Taken aback, Stede rubs his eyebrow, leaving behind a streak of charcoal. “I think twenty-five would be more appropriate.”

I shake my head, and stare into his eyes. Even sitting, I’m a good bit taller than he is, with broader shoulders. Seeing his resolve wavering, I press the advantage and pull the long dagger out of my boot, and hold it up to the sputtering lamp-light, testing the blade. I don’t think he will argue further, but I speak with heavy authority anyways. “Forty. Twenty for me, twenty for Ben, and the rest for you, until you have recovered enough to fully captain your own ship.”

“Of course,” accedes Stede at once. I think he has forgotten about Ben, and the reminder that he is entitled to a cut of the loot, as well as my implication that this is only temporary, has calmed him. I’ve lowered my dagger now too, which must lure him into ease again.

Ben also relaxes slightly. I feel the tension drain out of the air as he leans forward in his chair. “I believe that is fair.”

It takes another hour before we have finished bashing out the details. Then we sign, shake hands, and commence to some celebratory drinking.

One shared bottle down, Ben excuses himself, and I follow. I expect he wants to speak to me in private, and then I have other matters to attend to after that.

“Congratulations, Captain Teach,” Ben says dryly, when we are standing outside in the damp street.

I refuse to be put off by his tone. “Congratulations yourself, Commodore Hornigold. You now command a flotilla of three sloops.”

“Do I?”

“Look, I know I took charge of the situation back there. But I had to – you saw how well it was going. He wanted my help more than yours, and it’s nothing to do with our personalities, so put aside your offended feelings. He is half-afraid of me, and he knows his crew will listen to me on my appearance alone.”

“It has a great deal to do with our personalities,” says Ben harshly. “You took charge of that situation against my wishes, you bloody ambitious devil.”

“Against your wishes?” I echo scornfully. “You do not wish to receive twenty percent of plunder that your own crew will risk nothing to gain? You do not wish to tell your crew that they’re due an extra share of that twenty, for little effort?”

Ben blanches a little. He is a kind man, has never been anything but a fair captain and a good friend to me. I am sorry that he feels burned over this matter with Stede Bonnet.

“I am glad of the bargain we made,” he admits. “I promoted you, however, and it is because of me that you are a captain. I gave you the Adventure.”

“I know, and I never forget it,” I say sincerely. “I have been part of a ship’s crew for more than half of my damn life, and until I joined your crew, no one ever valued my courage. Oh, the other captains appreciated it, but they never bothered with promotions.”

“They may have been afraid to,” Ben says half under his breath. “Mayhap I rushed into promoting you, myself.”

I straighten my shoulders, and meet his eyes. “I am grateful to you for giving me the chance to make the most of my skills. I always have been.”

Ben sighs, and rests his hand on the hilt of his sword. It’s a habitual gesture with him, does not mean he is contemplating violence. “I know. Until now, I have never regretted making you a partner. This turned out well, today – I suppose I still do not regret it. But I want you to keep me informed from now on. No more making decisions without discussing it with me first.”

“I only found out about Bermuda yesterday,” I say. “If you object, we can change our plans easily enough.” Stede will surely listen to me if I tell him we need to sail to China, but I refrain from saying this.

Ben shakes his head. “Bermuda is good hunting ground, and a logical place to go from here.”

And that was the crux of this disagreement, I recognise. Not that I went over his authority to make this decision, or to use Stede, but because I was also right in both matters.

“I learned such logic from you,” I say, because I do not want to part on bad terms. I’ve never really been at cross-purposes with Ben before, and he knows me too well to be deceived by any false apologies or excuses.

He smiles slightly. “Well, I am off to seek more pleasant company.”

I assume this means feminine company. “I shall do the same. Good night, Ben.”

“Good night, Ned.”

Ben strolls away, in the opposite direction that I intend to go. I turn and head for Madame Felicia’s, but not for the usual reason. Not yet, at least. The reliable source I know, who provided me with the tip on Bermuda, is a whore there. I need to speak to her now.

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