"If you fail to, Ed, then yes I do," Hands had replied cheerfully. The two of them had sailed together way back in the privateer days, and then again as pirates under the old buccaneer admiral Ben Hornigold, and Israel Hands dared to be far more familiar with Blackbeard than anyone else did. "Why? Do you want to stay and try to fight from the Adventure?" He'd slapped the close bulkhead and low ceiling contemptuously. "She's nothing but a damned sloop, man, scarcely more than a turtle-boat! Let's get back to where we left the Queen Anne's Revenge hidden and get out to sea again! To hell with this surf-and-shoal dallying - I want to feel a real deck under my feet again, heaving on a real sea."
And moved by a sudden wave of affection for his loyal old shipmate, Blackbeard had impulsively decided to perform an act of mercy that would never be recognized as such. "I'll see to it," he said, under his breath, "that you do live to sail again, Israel."
Then under the table he drew two pistols, leaned forward and blew out the lamp flame, and crossed the pistols and fired them.
The simultaneous blasts flashed an instant of yellow light up through the cracks and holes in the table, and Israel Hands was flung spinning out of his chair to slam against the bulkhead. When the resulting shouting and scrambling had quieted enough for someone to think of relighting the lamp, Blackbeard saw that his aim had been perfect - one ball had gone harmlessly into the deck, and the other had made an exploded bloody ruin of Israel Hands' knee.
The several men in the cramped cabin, all on their feet now, had stared at Blackbeard with fear and astonishment, but Israel Hands, crouched against the bulkhead and trying to stop the flow of blood from his ruined leg, looked up at his old companion with hurt betrayal as well as pain in his suddenly gaunt face. "Why ... Ed?" he managed to ask from between clenched teeth.
Unable to tell him the truth, Blackbeard had merely said, gruffly, "Hell - if I didn't shoot one of you now and then you'd forget who I was."
Hands had been taken off the vessel the next morning, feverish and vowing revenge. But, thought Blackbeard now as he climbed down to the low-ceilinged gun deck, at least you'll be alive tomorrow, Israel - you're not here.
"Here's another one," he told Miller, who had already filled a dozen bottles with shot and powder, and, after poking a slow match into the neck of each, laid them carefully in a blanket. "Pretty much ready?"
Miller grinned, further distorting his already scar-crimped face. "Anytime you say, cap'n," he replied happily.
"Fine." With a faint echo of the feeling he'd had for Israel Hands, Blackbeard wished for a moment that he'd cooked up some reason to send all of his crew away, to meet Spotswood's pirate-killers alone. But the more blood that was shed today the better his magic would work, and, sentiment aside, any misfortune for others that prospered him was an acceptable bargain. "No quarter," he said. "More blood-salt than sea-salt in the ocean today, eh?"
"Damn right," agreed Miller, giggling as he funneled powder into the new bottle.
"Damn right," echoed Blackbeard.
"Got match-cords lit over yonder, cap'n," Miller remarked. "Sun coming up, I reckon you'll want to be braidin"em on soon."
"No," Blackbeard said thoughtfully, "I don't think I'll wear any today." He turned to the ladder, then paused and, without looking back, waved over his shoulder to Miller and the men hunched over the cannon breeches. "Uh ... thank you."
On deck again he saw that the day was indeed upon them. The east's faint pink had spread to a sky-spanning gray glow. A line of pelicans flapped past a few yards above the sand, and some stilt-legged birds were dashing busily back and forth on the Ocracoke Island beach a hundred yards off the port bow.
"Here they come, cap'n," said Richards grimly.
The sails of the two Navy sloops were now rigged and full, and the narrow hulls were advancing through the calm silver water, slowly because of its many shoals.
"I wonder if they've got a pilot that knows the inlet," mused Richards.
One of the sloops jarred to a mast-flexing halt; a moment later the other one did too.
"No," said Blackbeard, "they don't." I hope, he thought grimly, that all this hasn't been for nothing. I hope these Navy men aren't incompetent idiots.
He could see the splashes as sailors on the Navy vessels got busy pitching ballast over the side. Hurry, you fools, he thought. The tide's going out. And if I'm not ... replanted ... by Christmas, only five weeks distant now, I'll miss her, Hurwood will have done his silly connubial trick and disposed of her.
He wished he had learned sooner - or guessed - that his marriage-magic wouldn't work with ordinary women anymore. Early in his career as a magician he had discovered that there were female aspects to magic as well as male ones, and that no man, alone, could have much access to the female areas. In the past he had always got around that obstacle by getting himself sacramentally linked to a woman and then using that link, which in effect made them equal partners, to complete his otherwise one-sided magical capacity. The ready availability of fresh wives had made him careless of individual ones, and they had all died or gone insane fairly soon after the wedding as he used them up, and the one who would become a widow today was his fourteenth.
She would be sixteen years old now, and had still been pretty when he last saw her, back in May. He had been linking himself to her pretty heavily before that, using the magic-capable areas of her female mind to keep Bonnett under control - for some reason Bonnett had been more vulnerable to the female aspects of magic - and he had finally broken her mind. She was in a madhouse in Virginia now, and when he had visited her there in May to see if she could still be of any use to him, she had screamed and fled from him and then broken a window and tried to kill herself with a long piece of glass. In the ensuing confusion a midwife as well as a priest had been called, for the attendant who caught her had at first thought she was trying to give herself an abortion.
But now Blackbeard was not even remotely of the same sorcerous status as the average woman. He had drastically changed his status, he had shed blood in Erebus ... and so he could be profitably wed only to a woman who had also shed blood there.
As far as he knew there was only one woman alive who had done that.
"We could try to slip around them while they're stuck," observed Richards cautiously. "I think if we - " He sighed. "Nevermind. They're off again."
Blackbeard suppressed a grin of satisfaction as he squinted ahead. "They are indeed."
"Christ," Richards said hoarsely, "this is exactly how they caught Bonnett two months ago - cornered him up an inlet on an early morning low tide."
Blackbeard frowned. "You're right," he growled.
Richards glanced up at him, clearly hoping that the pirate-king had finally comprehended the extent of their danger here.
But Blackbeard was just recalling what he had heard about Bonnett's capture. Yes, by the Baron, he thought angrily, aside from the fact that it took place a hundred and fifty miles south of here, it was damned similar.
Bonnett stole my defeat scene!
Not only did he disqualify himself for the role I had planned for him, subtly enough for me not to have noticed until it was too late and he'd got himself captured, but he also remembered and appropriated - pirated! - the long-planned defeat scene I intend to enact - re-enact! - today! And the two magicians I sent to fetch him from that island came back without him, and wounded ... and this last Sunday, at exactly noon, I stopped being psychically aware of him. Apparently he found a loophole through which to escape me - the loop at the end of a hangman's rope.
"Hailing distance in a moment," croaked Richards, his face slick with sweat in spite of the chill that made his breath visible as steam.
"Hailing distance now," said Blackbeard. He squared his massive shoulders and then with slow, measured steps walked up to the bow and braced one booted foot on the bowsprit trunk. He filled his lungs, then shouted at the Navy sloops, "Damn you for villains, who are you? And from whence came you?"
There was commotion on the deck of the nearest sloop, and then the British ensign flag mounted fluttering to the top of the mast. "You may see by our colors," came a shouted reply, "we are no pirates!"
Almost formally, as if this were a rhetorical exchange in an old, old litany, Blackbeard called, "Come aboard so that I may see who you are."
"I cannot spare my boat," yelled back the Navy captain, "but I will come aboard of you as soon as I can, with my sloop!"
Blackbeard smiled and seemed to relax. He shouted back, "Damnation seize my soul if I give you quarters, or take any from you."
"We expect none, nor will extend any!"
Blackbeard turned to Richards. "I'd say that's clear," he remarked. "Run up our colors and cut our cable - we're off."
"Aye aye, cap'n," said Richards. "Leaving the prize?" he added, pointing at the captured merchant sloop.
"Sure, I never did care about the prize."
The foremost Navy vessel tacked north, evidently intending to loop around and prevent any flight by Blackbeard to the east, but in a moment Blackbeard's sloop, the Adventure, was skating west before the wind across the smooth surface of Pamlico Sound, aiming straight as an arrow between the other Navy sloop and the Ocracoke Island shore, toward the inlet and the open sea beyond. Every man aboard the Adventure except for Blackbeard was holding his breath, for the water was hardly more than six feet deep, and the tide was ebbing. Several even dug coins out of their pockets and flung them over the side - the sun hadn't yet cleared the hump of the island, and the coins fell lustreless into the smoke-gray water.
Richards was looking north, at the sloop that had hailed them. He laughed softly. "They're aground again!" he whispered.
Feeling suddenly very tired, Blackbeard drew one of his pistols and said, "Loose sails. We're going to pause to give these boys a broadside."
Richards spun to face him. "What? We've got it right now, we can get away if we - "
Blackbeard raised the pistol and poked Richards in the mouth with the muzzle. "Loose sails and ready the starboard guns, damn you!"
"Aye!" said Richards in a voice that was nearly a sob, turning to relay the order. Most of the men gaped in surprise, but they could see the pistol, and Hands' retirement was still fresh in everyone's memory, and so they obeyed, and the Adventure slowed, sails fluttering loosely, and coasted up alongside the Navy sloop.
"Fire starboard guns!" Blackbeard roared, and the Adventure rocked as the guns went off, fouling the dawn air with billows of acrid smoke and raising a clamoring scatter of alarmed sea birds.
The smoke drifted away west, toward the inlet, and Black-beard laughed to see the Navy vessel wallowing helplessly, her rigging blown to tatters and her rail and gunwales a ruin of torn wood.
"Set sail now?" pleaded Richards, eyeing the Ocracoke shore that was drawing slowly closer as the tide ebbed.
Blackbeard was looking at it too. "Yes," he said thoughtfully after a moment, for it was too late.
The wind, fitful at best, had died, and though the pirates crowded on every square yard of canvas like starving fishers spreading nets, the Adventure was drifting.
The sloop to the north had got afloat again and the men aboard her had got their oars out and were rowing toward the Adventure.
With the gentlest of jars, the Adventure went aground.
"Hurry up reloading the starboard guns!" called Blackbeard. "You lads," he added to a gang of pirates who were desperately flinging barrels and lengths of chain over the side, "nevermind that, you can't raise her faster than the tide's dropping her! Look to your pistols and cutlasses."
The remaining Navy sloop was closing steadily. "Hold fire until I say," said Blackbeard.
"Right," said Richards, who had drawn his cutlass and was slowly whirling it at arm's length in a warm-up exercise. Now that there was no hope of avoiding the encounter, most of his anxiety had disappeared. He grinned at Blackbeard. "I hope this is the closest you ever do cut it."
The giant pirate briefly squeezed Richards' shoulder. "Never this close again," he said quietly. "I promise you."
The Navy sloop was only a couple of dozen yards away now, and Blackbeard could even hear, over the knocking of the oars in the ports, grunts of effort from the rowers. He knew that the Navy captain must be considering when to discharge his own guns, and when things were a moment short of being lined up, Blackbeard called, "Fire."
Again the Adventure's starboard guns boomed, lashing small-shot like a whistling scythe across the other vessel's deck. Bodies, punched off their feet, spun away like kicked debris in a spray of splinters and blood, and the pirates cheered - but Blackbeard, standing on the Adventure's bowsprit, saw the young officer in charge hurriedly herding all his remaining ambulatory sailors belowdecks.
"Now the grenades!" Blackbeard yelled eagerly as soon as the last of the healthy Navy sailors had disappeared down the hatch.
The pirates happily got busy lighting the fuses protruding from the shot- and powder-filled bottles, and, as soon as a sputtering fire was near a bottle's neck, pitching the thing across the gap onto the Navy vessel's deck. With a staccato series of bangs the bottles exploded, flinging shot in all directions, ravaging the corpses on the deck and finishing off any Navy men who had been too badly hurt to get below.
"They're all dead, except three or four," Blackbeard yelled, drawing his cutlass. "Let's board and cut 'em to pieces!"