ABOARD ‘THE BLACK WOLF’
Somewhere in the Southern Ocean; September 1597
“What do ye see, Cap’n?”
“I see a ship full of scared men, Mr Perkins, trying to outrun us -” Captain Henry Black chuckled in jovial triumph, revealing teeth of surprising whiteness as he continued squinting down the telescope, before adding: “- at last.”
“What do ye mean ‘at last’?” On occasion Perkins forgot to use Black’s title; they had long ago swapped the naval ensign for the skull and crossbones. Always he remembered when in earshot of the crew, but they had shared too much – adventures, booty, women, even diseases – for their friendship to be affected by his minor disrespect.
Black clapped the old salt on the shoulder. “I mean that after almost a month at sea they’ve finally realised they can’t outfox Captain Henry Black. We’ve got ’em.”
Perkins rasped a hand across his stubbled cheeks and frowned. “But they’re ‘eading north, Cap’n. Thought you said ‘ome was likely somewhere in the south.”
Black peered again into his telescope. “They’re desperate, so they’re running before the wind, no matter the direction. They’ve just made their second mistake.”
“What was the first?”
“Letting me see that fine cargo they’re carrying.”
Perkins continued to look puzzled, which had the peculiar effect of turning his lazy right eye even further off-beam. “Cap’n, I can’t believe we’ve been trackin’ back and for’ds across the devil’s own sea, like a flea in Neptune’s beard, for the contents of their ‘old.” He looked sidelong at Black, who lowered the telescope, winked, and in doing so sparked into life the fading handsomeness of his saturnine features.
“Well you know me, my friend.” He gazed towards the distant ship across the broiling ocean – perhaps the most furious waters known to man. “I’m curious, Mr Perkins; about that strange ship; about its crew; and about where in God’s name they’re going. I want to know why they’ve led us this merry jig. It vexes me, Mr Perkins. Why risk being caught out here, far from sanctuary, rather than head back home. They must know we wouldn’t risk sailing into their waters.”
“Your orders, Cap’n?”
“Set the men gybing, Mr Perkins. Let these coves feel our breath on the backs of their necks.”
As The Black Wolf turned, the crew met the full spite of the wind that scours the Southern Ocean. It was a monster roaring in their ears; beating salt-soaked wings as it swooped past, blowing the breath of icy death in their faces. But Black’s men were spawn of that same beast. In many ways they lived for it as much as they died by its hands. Skilled sailors, they hauled and climbed and cursed, all the while clinging with tenacity to the tail of their sleek black quarry – more than once, the Captain had been unable to resist the joke of ‘one Black ship chasing another’ – which appeared to be labouring.
“They’re not versed in the art of gybing,” said Black to Perkins as he continued watching his prey through the telescope; “at least not with the grinning teeth of this corsair’s cutwater at their backs. Old shellbacks like thee ‘n’ me can tell when a man’s sailing scared.”
On they went, giving more hours of their lives to the ocean. Then, of a sudden, the sea-leathered lines around Black’s eyes unfolded and widened. “Man overboard,” he whispered, not wanting to panic his own crew by mistake.
A loose barrel on the deck of the other ship had rolled and knocked a hand over the rail. Black watched, his features turning grim and his voice angry. It was one thing to make your captives walk the plank, or keel-haul your men for indiscipline, but not returning for a fellow crewman in distress…? He raged. “They’re not throwing him a line. God’s blood, they’re not gybing round, nor even dropping sail to save their shipmate!”
Back in Zanzibar, where Black had first spotted that mysterious vessel being loaded, a man standing on the deck had caught his attention; an imposing, muscular figure, but clearly not the captain, being clad quite unlike any mariner in a kilt made of what looked for all the world like finest samite, interwoven with silver and gold. He seemed impervious to the coolness of the breeze and his handsome, but cruel face was framed by a burnished, horned helmet, from beneath which dark, hooded eyes had watched Black, making him nervous. Now, through his eyeglass, the pirate saw how that same man, whom he had taken to be a shaman of some sort, seemed to urge his terrified skipper to even greater speed, abandoning the flailing figure in the water to his doom.
Black felt his mouth go dry; this was against all the codes of sailing. As The Black Wolf approached the place where the man had gone overboard, the unfortunate wretch had already been taken by the unforgiving sea – also a creature of no conscience.
Now Perkins, who had run to the rail to look for the lost sailor, came hurtling back, shouting, but grinning; his few remaining teeth a testament to scurvy and syphilis, and his prominent eyes almost ready to pop out and roll across the deck.
“We’re gaining fast, Cap’n!”
“Aye, Mr Perkins, The Black Wolf has never been outrun. And they’re low in the water with all that cargo.”
The wind and spray added to the rush of excitement; old salts never lost that fever and Black felt its presence pass through the men; a ghost walking amongst them raising the hairs on their arms.
“Shall we prepare for boarding?”
Black pulled at his beard and considered. It wasn’t the smooth lines of the other ship – unlike any he’d seen before – which had kept it from his clutches; he was curious about so many things, that he was tempted just to continue following. “What are you hiding?” he asked in silence, “and who are you, with your obscure tongue and your ancient, weary eyes?” No-one in Zanzibar had known, or rather, they had refused to discuss it; just shrugging shoulders and casting nervous glances in the direction of the strangers, whose taut, lean-muscled bodies seemed to bear no signs of weary months at sea and contradicted the fatigue in their eyes.
But at that moment, the decision of whether to board or not was taken out of his hands as their prey decided to turn south again.
“They’re testing us!” shouted Black to the crew. “Coming around and sailing close to the wind. Sail close-hauled, lads, and tack into the wind. Show ‘em you have skill and courage. I think they’re trying to run for home.”
The merchant ship was soon within their grasp again; the last, frantic ploy had failed. But The Black Wolf was in uncharted waters and from the crow’s nest came words that froze the blood of Captain Henry Black:
“WHIRLPOOL! WHIRLPOOL! STRAIGHT AHEAD!”
Great currents had conjoined to form a seething maelstrom. Black bellowed the only orders he could as the universal roar of creation – the primeval song of the Southern Ocean – was replaced by something altogether more demonic and carnivorous.
“CHANGE TACK! GO INTO IRONS!”
Going into irons – the point at which a ship loses all momentum as it turns through a headwind – is usually the last place a sailor wants to be, but for Black it was his only hope of stopping before the gaping maw of that whirling monster consumed them. In the face of the devil, the crew fought as best they could. They might have been tempted to think their fate was out of their hands, but those hands were weathered and tenacious, the ship held fast and they were able to set a new course, while all of them shouted oath-filled prayers to whichever demon protected The Black Wolf.
Once the ship was safe, despite the frenzy and the fear, Black gave other orders:
“Turn, men. Like all good mariners we must bare our heads – aye, even Captain Henry Black – and watch, out of respect for them as share our perils.”
Black had lied with such vigour in his life that few who listened believed what he had to say in the years to come, but he swore that the crew of the doomed ship had sheeted out their sails rather than in.
“Aye,” he would say with typical bombastic eloquence in some den of iniquity, warming to his theme as another brandy warmed him, “either they sailed that great black ship with purpose to its doom to protect their secrets, or they returned to the netherworld whence they came, for I looked through my telescope and saw the last man to sink beneath the waves raise his hand towards us in a sailor’s farewell.”