And finally, with Hurwood virtually vanquished, there was only one incident of Friend's life that needed to be sanctified out of plain squalid reality ... but it was the most harrowing and traumatic experience he'd ever undergone, and even just facing it, even just making himself remember it, was supremely difficult ... but now, as he hung in midair over his ship, facing his all-but-shattered enemy and watching his all-but-won prize rising up from the broken cabin beneath him, he forced himself to relive it.
He was fifteen years old, standing beside the bookcase in his cluttered, smelly bedroom ... no, in his elegant panelled bedchamber, aromatic with the jasmine breeze wafting in through the open casements and the breath of fine leather bindings ... it had always been this way, there had never been the shabby, polluted room ... and his mother opened the door and came in. Only for a moment was she a fat, gray-haired old drudge in a black bag dress - then she-was a tall, handsome woman in a patterned silk robe that was open down the front ... Seven years earlier he had discovered magic, and he had pursued it diligently since, and knew a lot now, and he wanted to share the wealth in his mind with the only person who had ever appreciated that mind ...
He went to her and kissed her ...
But it was beginning to get away from him, she was the dumpy old woman again, just come upstairs to put fresh sheets on his bed, and the room was the grubby room again and he was a startled fat boy interrupted in the midst of one of his solitary self-administrations, and he was kissing her dizzily because in his heart-pounding delirium he had misunderstood the reason for her visit ... "Oh, Mommy," he was gasping, "you and I can have the world, I know magic, I can do stuff ... "
With a huge effort of will he forced her to be the beautiful robed woman, forced the room to expand back out to its regal dimensions ... and he did it just in time, too, for he knew that his father, his mother's husband, entered the room next, and he really doubted that he could live through that scene again as it had really happened.
Well, he told himself unsteadily, I'm making reality here. In a few minutes that unbearable memory won't be what really happened.
Footsteps boomed ponderously on the stairs, ascending. Friend concentrated, and the steps diminished in volume until it might have been a child climbing the stairs. There was a lamp on the landing below, and a huge, bristling shadow darkened the open doorway and began to damage the room ... but again Friend fought it down to insignificance - now a stooped, thin shadow grew in the doorway, dim, as if the thing casting it wasn't solid.
Now a little man like an upright rat in baggy trousers shambled into the room, obviously of no danger to anyone, in spite of its squinting and scowling. "What's - ," it began in a deafening roar, but Friend concentrated again and its voice came out scratchy and petulant: "What's going on here?" The thing's breath was foul with liquor and tobacco. The father-creature now swaggered ludicrously across the tiled floor to Leo Friend, and in this version of reality the blow it leveled at him was a light, trembling slap.
The mother faced the intruder, and just her gaze made the unshaven creature recoil away from the boy. "You ignorant animal," she said softly to it, her low, musical voice echoing from the panelled walls and blending with the random tinkling of the fountains and wind chimes outside. "You thing of grime and sweat and laborer's tools. Beauty and brilliance are beyond your grubby perceptions. Go."
The thing stumbled in confusion back toward the door, its stinks receding, though bits of its ill-fitting black overcoat and leather boots flaked off to mar the floor tiles.
Hurwood fell another foot; he was almost down to the level of the deck now. Sweat plastered his white hair across his forehead and he was breathing in harsh gasps. His eyes were shut - but for a moment one opened, just a slit, and there seemed to be a gleam of guile in it, of almost perfectly concealed triumph.
It jarred Friend, and for a moment his control shook; and in the remembered bedchamber the father began to get bigger and walk away slower. The room was decaying back to its original form, and Friend's mother was babbling, "What'd you hit Leo for, yer always hittin"im ... " and the father started to turn around to face them.
High above the poop deck Leo Friend clenched his glowing fists and used all his willpower; and, slowly, the father was pushed down again, the paneling became at least dimly visible on the walls ...
Then Hurwood stopped pretending defeat, and laughed openly, and struck.
And Friend's father, though his back was still turned to him, grew until the doorway lintel was almost too low and narrow for him, and when he turned around he had Hurwood's grinning face, and he opened his huge mouth and assailed Friend's eardrums with the sentence that Friend had tried desperately to trim out of reality: "What're ye doin' t'yer mother, ye little freak? Look, ye've got 'er sickin up on the floor!"
Moaning in abject horror, Leo Friend turned to his mother, but in the moments since he'd last looked at her she'd deteriorated, and she was now a thing like a fat, hairless dog backing away from him on all fours, its belly heaving as it regurgitated its internal organs out onto the dirty floor ...
The room had not only devolved back to its original shabbiness, but was becoming even darker, the air staler. Friend tried to escape from it back to the clean sea air and the Charlotte Bailey, or even the Vociferous Carmichael, but he couldn't find a way out.
"You used it up too fast," said the terrible thing that was his father and Benjamin Hurwood and every other strong grownup who had ever despised him - and then it rushed in, as the room went totally dark, to devour him.
A thunderclap concussed the air and not only deafened Shandy, who had just climbed to his feet, but staggered him too, so that he had to grab a line of rigging to keep from falling, and when he glanced around, choking in the redoubled metallic stench, he saw that the ship had returned to being the familiar old Carmichael again and that the resurrected fighters were just dim shadows. The arms on his jacket were gone.
He glanced up. Beth Hurwood hung motionless in midair twenty feet above the poop deck, but Friend was rushing upward into the blue sky, and though he was glowing more brightly than ever now, almost too brightly to stare at, he was thrashing like a man attacked by wasps, and even over the ringing in his ears Shandy could hear him screaming. Finally, far above, there was a flash that left a red blot in front of Shandy's eyes wherever he looked, and the sky was full of fine white ash.
Very gently, Beth Hurwood was lowered back into the cabin, and some of the planks that had been torn away slithered back up and clung across the ragged gaps. The ghosts of the Spanish and English sailors, nearly impossible to see now, drifted this way and that across the deck to the blood puddles around the killed members of Jenny's crew, and though the ghosts momentarily seemed to draw sustenance from the blood, some of the ash that had been Leo Friend swirled silently across the deck and seemed to poison them.
The pile of broken lumber kept shifting even after the animate planks had eeled away to provide bars for Beth's cage, and finally two bloody human figures crawled out from underneath. Shandy started to yell a pleased greeting - then noticed the broken and emptied head of one, and the completely caved-in chest of the other. After that he looked at their eyes and wasn't surprised at the emptiness in them.
Nearer Shandy, the corpse of Mr. Bird sat up, got laboriously to its feet and shambled over to the blocks where the mainsail sheet was controlled; one by one the other corpses joined him there, and when they had all gathered, somehow managing to look expectant in spite of their dead faces, Shandy counted fourteen of them.
"Not Davies," he said thickly, seeing that body standing among them and realizing for the first time that his friend had been killed. "Not Davies."
Hurwood came sailing in over the rail, swerving like a big bird over the heads of Shandy and the rest of the exhausted survivors, and landed on the poop deck near the now partially boarded-over hole. He stared expressionlessly down at Shandy for several seconds, then shook his head. "Sorry," he said to him. "I don't have a big enough crew to be able to spare him. Now get off of my ship."
Shandy looked toward the Jenny, whose mast and scorched sail were visible poking up above the starboard rail. The smoke that had been billowing up right after the fireball had fallen into the vessel was just wisps and curls now - evidently the men still aboard her had managed to put out the fire.
The twenty or so living pirates on the Carmichael's deck, many of whom were wounded and bleeding, looked toward Shandy.
He nodded. "Back aboard the Jenny," he said, trying to keep out of his voice the choking bitterness he felt. "I'll join you in a moment."
As his men shuffled and limped across the deck to where the Jenny's grappling hooks still clung to the Carmichael's gunwales and rigging, Shandy took a deep breath and, though knowing that it would be useless and quite possibly fatal, walked purposefully across the deck toward the damaged cabin Beth was in.
Hurwood just watched him approach, a faint smile on his face.
Shandy stopped in front of the bolted door, and, feeling ridiculous as well as frightened and determined, knocked on the door. "Beth," he said clearly. "This is Jack Shandy - that is, John Chandagnac." Already the name seemed unnatural to him. "Come with me and I promise to take you directly to the nearest civilized port."
"How," came Beth's voice, surprisingly calm, through the warped door, "can I trust a man who murdered a naval officer in order to save killers from the just consequences of their acts, and later held a knife at my throat to keep me from my own father?"
Shandy brushed a stray lock of salt-stiff hair back from his forehead and squinted up at Hurwood - who smiled at him and shrugged in mock sympathy.
"That Navy captain," Shandy said, striving to keep his voice level, "was about to murder Davies - kill him without a trial. I had no choice. And your father - " He stopped for a moment in despair, then forced himself to go on, ridding himself of the words like a crew flinging cannons and casks overboard from a foundering vessel. "Your father intends to evict your soul from your body so that he can replace it with your mother's."
There was no answer from inside the cabin.
"Please get off my ship now," said Hurwood courteously.
Instead Shandy reached for the door's bolt - and a moment later found himself suspended in midair, rising up and away from the cabin door. His eyes went wide and then clamped shut, and then opened in a tense squint, and his whole body was rigid with uncontrollable vertigo.
When he had passed over the Carmichael's gunwale and hung thirty feet above the water in front of the Jenny's fire-blackened bow, he was released, and plummeted through the air for one long second before plunging into the cold water.
He thrashed his way to the surface, and wearily swam to the Jenny, and brawny arms reached out and pulled him aboard. "It's stinkin' magic, cap'n," Skank said to him when he was safely aboard and leaning against the mast and breathing deeply while a puddle of sea water spread out on the deck around his boots. "Lucky even to get away, we are."
Shandy didn't let show his surprise at being addressed as captain. After all, Davies was dead and Shandy had been his quartermaster. "Expect you're right," he muttered.
"I'm sure glad you made it, though, Jack," Venner assured him with a broad smile that didn't conceal the chill in his gray eyes.
The last couple of pirates freed the grappling hooks and leaped down into the water and were soon aboard the Jenny and demanding rum.
"Yeah, give 'em rum," Shandy said, pushing the stray hair off his forehead again and reflecting that he'd soon have to draw his hair back and add another inch or two to his tarred pigtail. "How bad's the Jenny hurt?"
"Well," said Skank judiciously, "she wasn't in great shape even before that fireball. But we ought to be able to get her back to New Providence easy enough - all tack, no jibe."
"New Providence," Shandy said. He looked up and saw the corpse of Mr. Bird climbing the Carmichael's shrouds. The body stepped into the footrope loop that hung just below the yard that supported the main course sail, and with the precision of a clockwork mechanism began unreefing the sail while cooling hands below worked the halliards. The sails filled, the sheets creaked through the blocks, and, slowly at first, the big ship moved away from the Jenny.
"New Providence," repeated the new captain of the Jenny thoughtfully.
And in the Carmichael's cabin the spell was finally lifted from Beth Hurwood's throat, and she gasped, "I believe you, John! Yes - yes, I'll come with you! Take me away from here, please!"
But by then the Jenny was a shabby scrap of discolored canvas in the middle distance of the sea's glittering blue face, and, aside from her father's, the only ears her words reached were those of the dead men crewing the Vociferous Carmichael.
It wants a quarter to twelve,
And to-morrow's doomsday.
- T. L. Beddoes
Six men climbed out of the boat when it rocked to a halt in the shallows. Stede Bonnett, peering down at them from behind a dogwood tree at the crest of the sandy hill that sheltered his campfire from the chilly onshore wind, grinned with relief when he recognized their leader - it was William Rhett, the same British Army colonel who had captured Bonnett more than a month ago, and was now clearly here to recapture him after his recent escape from the watchhouse that doubled as Charles Town's jail.
Thank God, thought Bonnett; I'm about to be locked up again - if I'm very lucky, in fact, I may be killed here today.