It emerged as a distant white speck, interrupting the horizon between two distinct blues—Caribbean Sea and cloudless sky. And for a brief moment, Espiritu de los Santos went unnoticed.
“Sail ho,” the spotter called from the fighting top of the pirate ship Red Knight.
“Where away?” Harker yelled back.
“Five points to starboard, Captain.”
Given his lower angle, it took a few minutes before the white sails came into Harker’s view. He turned to his quartermaster, Yauggan de Graaf. “Merchant or warship. What think you?”
De Graaf squinted at the vessel. It was too far to count masts. “Let it be merchant,” he grinned.
As they watched, Harker noticed the white sails began to reflect the sun differently. The unaccompanied ship was turning. Likely a merchant, then, he thought—seeking to avoid contact. English? French? Dutch? Spanish? Its flag wasn’t large enough to distinguish. No matter. Whatever sailed these waters was fair prey.
“Full sails,” Harker shouted. “Lively now.” Additional sails unfurled quickly, billowing as the wind blew against them. They were pulled taut and secured. The tiller spun, maneuvering the Red Knight into an intercepting direction.
Within hours, the gap between the two ships narrowed to firing distance. It was now clear to Harker—this was a Spanish merchant. It sailed low in the water, indicating heavy cargo. That explained why he’d been able to close so quickly.
“Bring her about. Ports open,” he shouted. “Hoist the red.” His drapeau-de-guerre was blood red; the color of death. This merchant captain needed to understand—chose to resist and he would pay the ultimate price. A roughly sewn red flag quickly ascended the mizzenmast. The Red Knight turned broadside, gunports flipping open, hammering against the ship’s starboard side. Fully loaded cannons rolled loudly into forward position, noses out. Gunners secured the wheels.
Espíritu de los Santos hailed from Cádiz. It was returning home from Panama with a variety of South American goods. It also carried gold and silver received in exchange for supplies and merchandise it had brought from the motherland. Captain Jose Rodriguez, nephew of King Philip II of Spain, had sailed frequently to the Caribbean and the Spanish Main. Given his royal connection, he was a much-favored trader. A distinguished looking young gentleman, he sported the finest clothing and a well-groomed black beard that came to a sharp point below his chin. He had attempted to outrun the unflagged vessel the moment he spotted it, fearing a potentially unfriendly encounter. Unfortunately, the weight of his cargo constrained the ship like tight reins on a horse. He was ill-prepared to resist an attack by a seasoned band of brigands in a faster, well-armed vessel. The rapidly shrinking gap between the two ships had threatened danger. The hoisting of a red flag and opening of gun ports now confirmed it.
Harker’s cannons roared, aiming high to avoid damaging their prey below the water line. There was no point risking its sinking; Harker needed the cargo afloat. Espíritu’s mainmast took a glancing blow, spraying the deck below with knife-edged, wooden shards. Its sails were peppered, tearing open gaping holes, diminishing their effectiveness. The two ships closed like attracting magnets.
As the Red Knight pulled alongside, men on both decks traded pistol shots. Iron guns exchanged six-pound balls trailing bright flares of orange flame and dark smoke. Cannonballs crashed into both ships. Within moments, grappling hooks flew across the gap, gripping the sides of the Spanish merchant as they were pulled hard. Harker’s men furiously hauled the two vessels together, ducking opposing pistol shots. Espíritu de los Santos would soon yield her treasures.
William Tovery strode hastily along the cobblestones, head down, holding his wet cavalier hat tightly against the brisk wind. His long navy overcoat was drenched, flapping at its base. Stepping into Orion’s Tavern, he cursed and shook off the water, hanging his hat and coat on a wall-hook.
Captain Garret Connachan laughed. She’d done the very same herself, only minutes earlier. She sat at a table near the back, warming her hands on a fresh cup of hot black koffei—a beverage she’d discovered during her time in the South Seas. She’d brought supplies back to London, convincing the tavern owner to purchase some. Save for Garret and a few of her associates, he’d had little success selling it.
William spotted her. He waved to the owner and pointed to Garret’s koffei. He’d grown fond of it. Garret rose to greet him. She was fashionably dressed. Naval style. Although her vest, pants and boots were masculine, she sported a playfully bright green blouse with a white ruff at the collar. The green closely matched her eyes. Her auburn hair was now longer than she’d ever worn it—evidence she now embraced her womanhood openly. Years of presenting as male had given way. She had Admiral Drake to thank for it. That and her own efforts to prove herself. Still in her late teens, she had already accomplished more than most men would in their lifetimes.
Her skin bore a soft, reddish tint, the result of spending considerable time outdoors—practicing daily with sword and pistol, hunting foxes, and overseeing the construction of her new flagship. The relaxed expression on her face was reflective of someone happy with their life. Her overall appearance drew continual attention from the men in the tavern. She sensed their interest but chose to ignore them.
William was the closest thing to a brother that Garret had. She noticed his curly, dark-brown hair was neatly knotted in a seaman’s tail, much like she herself wore at sea. He now sported a well-trimmed beard, accenting his similarly reddish-tanned face. His eyes were dark brown, his smile broad as ever. He strode toward her with the gait and swagger of a seasoned sailor. “Give me ocean spray over this damned constant rain,” he said.
“Good day to you as well, William.” She greeted him in the manner of a gentleman—with a firm handshake. Though she’d long since come clean with her crewmates about her gender, she selectively maintained mannerisms that were male in nature. It helped avoid undesired discomfort among the men. She was committed to simply being ‘one of them’, particularly onboard ship.
“Apologies.” He pulled back the chair across from her. “I am so ready for my next voyage. Being stationary is most discomforting.” He sat.
The two first met while serving as midshipmen under Drake. Through numerous voyages and naval engagements with the Admiral, each had earned a captaincy. Garret’s had been more difficult to come by.
“It has been far too long, William.”
“Indeed. I thank you for the invitation. Knowing you as I do,” he smiled, “I presume you have something specific to discuss.”
“You know me better than anyone.”
“Except Pantas,” William winked. He was referring to her former lover—the Indonesian Ambassador to England. “God rest his soul.”
“God rest his soul,” Garret echoed. “He knew me differently, not necessarily better.” She smiled. Though the pain of loss still lurked within, it was okay for William to mention Pantas. The three had been friends.
“I am in the early stages of forming a small fleet, bound for the South Seas. I have a score to settle, as you well know.” William nodded in response. “And I intend to return with a portion of King Philip’s purse.” The pursuit of treasure was something she and William were both passionate about; a disease they’d caught from Drake. “I would welcome your joining me.”
William understood there were actually two scores Garret hoped to settle. The first was to avenge the massacre of a dozen men under her leadership, by the villagers of Santiago del Príncipe. She alone had escaped that slaughter. The second, and harder score to avenge, was the assassination of Pantas. While they both suspected the Spanish, there seemed little likelihood of discovering the actual perpetrator.
“Sounds ambitious,” William replied. Though anxious to sail again, he planned on it being for England’s navy, rather than as a privateer. The difference was significant. Sailing for the navy would enable him to continue charting a path up the chain of command, in the hope of becoming an Admiral. Privateers, like Garret, were separate from the navy. Though formally commissioned by the Queen or other nobles to pursue specific interests, they were not part of Her Majesty’s naval forces. Consequently, they had no direct path to the admiralty. Nor to the societal standing, fame and pensions that accompanied that rank. Even more bothersome to him, privateers would forever be looked down upon by naval officers.
“It would be an honor to sail with you again, Garret. Besides you and Thomas, there is no one else with whom I would prefer to sail.” The ‘Thomas’ he referred to was Drake’s younger brother, their former fellow midshipman. William warmed his hands on the cup of koffei the server had just placed in front of him. “But I intend to serve the Queen as part of Her Majesty’s navy.” Garret masked her disappointment. William sipped his koffei and changed course, “May I ask where your funding comes from?”
“I have not shared much of my personal matters with anyone. Other than Pantas, of course. My grandfather was counselor to high-profile merchants. He added greatly to the significant wealth and property he inherited from his mother. When he died, I became sole heir and executor. The yearly revenue earned through farming alone is substantial. I am drawing on a portion of that to fund this voyage. But I have also gained the support of several investors. Their eyes gleam at the promise of Spanish treasure delivering an outsized return on their investments. Having previously assisted the Admiral in securing funding has helped immensely.”
“No doubt your relationship with the Queen has also helped.”
Garret nodded, smiling. William continued, “I envy your economic position. It must be rather freeing to pursue your own agenda.”
“It is. Although, wealth must be carefully managed. I have employed advisors for that purpose. I must say, however, they are not entirely onboard with my decision to invest in a private fleet.”
“What of Thomas? Have you approached him about joining you?”
“Dear Thomas. The man is so dedicated to preserving the memory and estate of his legendary brother that he is committed to staying in Devon. At least for the foreseeable future. He also serves as an advisor to the Queen, on military and diplomatic matters.”
“Yes. I am well aware. He and I see each other on occasion, when he journeys to London. We often reminisce about our days together at sea. I always imagined he would continue in his brother’s footsteps.”
“I am afraid not. He made that quite clear. It is no longer his future path.”
“Hmmm. So, without Thomas or me, you shall be needing new leadership blood.”
Garret smiled. “I have not given up on you, William.”
A maniacal mob poured over the sides of Espíritu de los Santos. Some had smeared stripes on their faces with black dubbin. Others had applied a thin layer of animal fat and then thrown white flour on their faces, followed by rings of dubbin around their eyes and mouth, creating the appearance of a skull. They’d learned that fear alone was a powerful weapon. Still, they were met with a barrage of pistol shots and pikes, wounding and killing a few. But the screaming horde made a precipitous charge, unnerving their adversaries. Some Spaniards fell back to the far side, fumbling to reload pistols. Others clashed swords with the barbarous wave.
Unbridled terror was no match for pulsating adrenaline. Harker’s raiders mashed and slashed their way through the front line before most of the defenders’ pistols were ready to re-fire. Though slowed by fallen bodies, dismembered body parts and slicks of blood on the deck, the relentless onslaught was unstoppable. Captain Luis Rodriguez, standing at the bow, fired two pistol shots in the air. Julio, his young aide, stood next to him, waving a white sheet to signal surrender. “Rendición!” Rodriguez shouted over the heavy din.
“Enough!” roared Harker, thrusting his cutlass high in the air. It was covered to the hilt in blood that began dripping onto his boot.
Captain Rodriguez watched the large man approach, a red patch covering his eye. Though he didn’t look like a traditional sea captain, he certainly had the bearing of someone in charge. His roughly bearded chin and bronzed leather skin were framed by long, jet-black hair flowing down below his neck in unruly strands. He was tall, strong and menacing-looking. Battle scars etched on his face and arms spoke to his fearlessness, if not to the ruthlessness simmering beneath the surface. Fools who dared challenge him had met their end swiftly. Brutally. The fact that he’d once sailed with the legendary Drake also brought him a level of respect from his fellow pirates.
As Harker ascended the bow, Rodriguez nodded to his men, seeking to assure them their lives would be spared. He slowly removed his sword from its scabbard and held it flat, crosswise in his hands, palms up. Harker stopped within three feet. Rodriguez bowed his head, extending his arms to offer up the sword. When he looked up again, he saw the blooded point of Harker’s cutlass rushing at his face. He saw no more.
Many of the crew of Espíritu de los Santos turned their heads as their captain’s limp body crumpled to the deck. A few vomited. One felt himself involuntarily soil his breeches. Harker stood over Rodriguez, watching him breathe his last. He slowly turned toward the men, peering down on them from the ship’s bow. He thrust both arms in the air, shouting in a heavy, crusted voice, “No one challenges the Red Knight and walks away freely. Let no-one doubt our resolve.”
Julio, the Captain’s aide, knelt on the foredeck, head down, as if awaiting his own end. Harker glanced at him briefly, deciding he was too young to die this day. He descended the steps and walked toward the Spaniards, all of whom who had dropped their weapons and pressed back to the taffrail. “Tesoro?” he asked of them (treasure?). No-one moved. He walked up to one of the smaller men, picked him up by the armpit and crotch, and threw him overboard. His screams drowned in the splash.
“Tesoro?” Harker asked again.
“Si Capitán.” A grizzled old seaman stepped forward. He waved his arm toward the cargo hatch, nodding his head to suggest he would take him to the treasure.
Harker motioned to de Graaf. “Follow him. Let me know what you find.”
The powerful, half-black, half-Dutch de Graaf, who befriended Harker during their days with Drake, placed the tip of his sword against the old Spaniard, nodding in the direction of the hatch. Every bit as ruthless as Harker, de Graaf was less refined. Unpredictable. The Spaniard sensed it. He moved briskly.
Harker pointed to two other pirates, indicating they should follow de Graaf. He scanned the eyes of the rest of his men. “Which of these Spaniards deserve to pay the price for having challenged us?”
Two were reluctantly pulled forward. Beads of sweat glistened on their foreheads as Harker approached. “You are filth.” He spit in one man’s face. “You shall pay dearly for your actions.” He ordered the men holding them to bind them to the mainmast. As they were pulled away, he addressed the rest of the Spanish crew. “Habla Inglés?”
One of the men stepped forward. He was well-groomed, not like an ordinary crewman. “I say pequeño Inglés, Capitán.” Harker looked him up and down. The man was of medium build, dark haired, neatly shaven. He looked to be in his early twenties. He wore a doublet over a surprisingly clean, white blouse. “Mi nombré es Cristiano. Soy tesorero. This,” he waved his arm to take in the ship, “barco comercial.”
Recognizing this man was the treasurer, Harker pulled him by his arm to the far side of the ship. He had no desire to have their conversation overheard. “Tell me, Cristiano, cuanto dinero?”
“I not…cierto, Capitán. Quizás,” his eyes peered upwards, as if counting, “acerca de 80,000 escudos y 120,000 reales: Ingresos de venta…sale, si? Pay for marineros, y dinero de las oficiales. I not know…ahorros”, he reached into his pocket, “de marineros. Además,” he held up two fingers, “dos cofres lingotes de plata…bars, si? Y uno de oro.”
Harker maintained a stone face but inside his heart raced. He understood enough to know this was a small fortune. He would need to keep his men from learning the full value of the holdings, so that he might secure more than his rightful share. He sensed the treasurer might be helpful in that regard. The man would be spared.
Plymouth Harbor buzzed with activity as Garret approached the docks. Several merchant ships were at anchor, their goods being boarded and off-loaded by crisscrossing longboats. Nearby shipyards delivered the sounds of construction. The music of the waterfront filled her soul with happiness. She’d come here to meet with Black Bo and The Caber, former crewmates.
Black Bo was a behemoth—dark skinned, bald-headed, muscled and stern-faced. A man of few words. And fewer smiles. No one knew his origins for certain. Some said he was a former slave who dispatched his captors to gain his freedom. He was easily the most feared and respected of all the men who’d ever sailed with Drake. His long, black-handled, double-edged axe was razor sharp. He wielded it with ease. The handle was carefully notched for each man who’d met his end at the blade. When not sailing, he was much in demand as an executioner. The authorities said it was for the cleanness and thoroughness of his strikes. In truth, it was more for the spectacle. He was the kind of hulking, fearful presence that most people on the street never saw. And once they did, they were mesmerized.