One English boy shackled to the mast. That’s what Kit Frazier saw as he crept over the side of the slave ship. One boy of about seventeen years, feet tied with rope, arms shackled with iron. There was blood dripping to the deck, too, but Kit couldn’t see from what wound.
Bloody hell, this was a trap.
He wasn’t sure what tipped him off. Everything was silent. The man on watch stood like a statue on the foredeck, not even bothering to whistle. Kit cocked his ear toward the hold. No sobs. No low moans. So, no slaves trapped below either. Just the one English adolescent, his dirty blonde hair a mat that obscured his face.
Kit crept around the edge, slipping through shadows. He’d spent years on this boat as a slave, and coming back now made his hands slick with sweat. If he had any sense, he’d turn and run now before it was too late. What did he care that another English aristocrat had been abducted for ransom? But once, long ago, he’d been chained to the mast, waiting for a ransom that never came. He couldn’t leave this boy to the same fate.
A flash of yellow teeth caught his attention. Kit froze, peering into the blackness, waiting until he heard a telltale pop of knuckles. That had to be Abdur, the one who like to whip the children. Kit smiled. Suddenly he didn’t care if it was a trap so long as he could strike against the nightmare of Venboer’s slave ship.
Kit crouched, wiped the sweat from his hands, then struck. After two years as a free man, he was faster than Abdur. And stronger too. The bastard collapsed to the deck. Kit even remembered to cushion his fall so that all was done in silence. Then he looked around. One down, how many more?
Three that he could see, spaced behind barrels set much too obviously along the rail. Perfect spacing from which to attack. Not so good for defense. Kit slipped behind each one, his panic easing now that he was in action. One by one, they fell. Easily done, but it took too much time.
Kit looked around again. The boy had raised his head to listen. Sharp ears that one, but was he smart? Would he know to keep quiet until Kit could effect a rescue? Taking a huge risk, Kit slid Abdur’s knife across the deck, wincing at the sound. Not so loud, but not so quiet either. And sadly, no help against the shackles. But at least the boy would be able to defend himself while Kit went in search of the key. Or a heavy axe.
The boy didn’t appear to move as the blade settled against his leg. But a blink later, the knife was gone and he was drooping more where he sat, presumably so he could cut the rope at his ankles. So. The kid was smart too.
Kit began to creep toward the forecastle. The slave key was kept…
Three figures stepped out of the shadows, two large men flanking their very large captain. Kit spun around. Two more men stepped behind him, one of them the watchman who had jumped down to join the fray. Five to one with the boy still chained to the mast.
Then a miracle happened. The boy stood up, his iron shackles dropping to the deck with a clang. Kit raised his eyebrows in surprise. Apparently, he was rescuing a lockpick. Which narrowed the odds to five against two. Better, though he doubted the boy really knew how to fight. Still, things were definitely looking up. Especially since he could see the boy’s wounds now. Swollen face from a beating, jagged cut along his arm, but nothing that would keep him from swimming to safety.
I knew you would come, Venboer gloated and Kit slid his attention back to the bastard who had destroyed so many lives, Kit’s included. He looks like you, yes?
Kit shifted into the cocky drawl that he knew irritated Venboer. We English are a pretty lot.
The bastard released a growl, low in his throat. It took a moment for Kit to realize he was trying to chuckle. He will do well in the dens, I think. Pretty enough for the women, but strong enough to be used by men.
To the side, the boy stiffened in horror, his jaw clenched tight. Kit too, had to repress his visceral response. He’d seen what happened to the pretty ones in the dens. Some things were worse than death, and that was one of them. Meanwhile, Kit tried to appear as if he weren’t choosing between death and worse than death. No one paid the ransom then?
Venboer shrugged. Not enough.
How much? Maybe I’ll buy him. Kit drawled as he turned to inspect the boy. It was a ruse. He didn’t have near enough to buy a slave, but it gave him an excuse to catch the prisoner’s eyes. With a tiny flick of his eyes, he indicated the far rail. That was their best escape, assuming the boy could swim. He took a step forward. He looks a little sickly
Venboer’s men attacked. The bastard never had been one for idle chat. Kit had been ready for it, but hoping to get in a better position first. No time now as the back two men suddenly lunged. They were trained sailors, well versed in sea fighting, and armed with cutlasses. Kit, on the other hand, had only his daggers which were light enough for swimming and little use against a large, heavy sword. But at least the boy could escape.
Kit leaped aside, then began the game of feint and dash while simultaneously listening for Venboer’s other men behind him. He narrowly missed being gutted, but was being slowly, steadily pushed back into Venboer and his other two men.
Hell. He was running out of time. His two attackers had slowed down, stepping sideways in order to flank him better. It was now or never. Kit abruptly spun around, giving his back to his attackers while he threw.
Venboer’s first mate fell to the ground, a knife sticking from his throat. Kit didn’t allow himself the time to even smile. Later he would relish the satisfaction that the man who had beaten him nightly for months was finally dead. Right now, while the others were gaping at the first mate, Kit spun back and threw again. The one closest to the boy dropped.
The boy? Bloody hell! The idiot was supposed to be over the side now and swimming for his life. But no, in an admirable show of bravery, the kid was lifting the dead man’s cutlassin the wrong kind of gripand closing to Kit’s side. Damned English honor. Now they were both going to die.
Except they didn’t. The fighting closed in tight with even Venboer lending a hand. Against cutlasses, Kit wouldn’t usually have stood a chance, but the boy had a special genius for interfering at just the right time. First it was a rope, kicked beneath one man’s feet. That gave Kit time to use his last throwing knife and thin their opponents to two.
Then the boy tossed Kit the cutlass. No small feat given the weight and heft of the blade, but Kit was able to snatch it out of the air in time. Better and better. But two against one was still hard fighting, and Venboer was smart. Kit couldn’t hold them off for long.
Go! he barked at the boy. Swim!
There was a moment’s hesitation, then the boy abruptly spun on his heel and ran. A moment later, Kit heard a telltale splash and felt an inner release. If he did nothing else in his misbegotten life, at least he had saved one boy. He grinned at Venboer.
Your prize has escaped.
The bastard actually grinned. The boy is nothing. You are the prize.
That’s what I meant, Kit countered with a maniacal laugh. I’m leaving. It was a bluff. Kit threw himself into a rush of speed and ferocity that would never win him freedom against these two. They were too good and he was too tired, and all three of them knew it. But it was Kit’s only hope. With luck, it would force Venboer to kill him. He’d rather die than be enslaved to this bastard again.
Luck was on his side. Venboer hated the sound of joy, especially a slave’s. So while the bastard flinched away from Kit’s bizarre laughter, Kit was able to press close and slice him across the chest. But he paid dearly for that victory. The other sailor struck before Kit could move aside. A crippling blow to this leg that had him crumpling to one knee. He felt the slick wash of blood and knew the gash was deep. He was done for, but maybe he had one more swing left in him. He took it gleefully.
For Jeremy! he bellowed, then stabbed upward. Throwing all his weight behind his thrust, he pierced Venboer like a fish on a stick. The bastard’s mouth gaped open, his eyes shot wide and then he dropped in the slow fall that men take when their heart has been pierced.
Victory! And now…death. In order to make the thrust, Kit had to exposed all of himself to the other man’s swing. His neck, his arm, hell, his whole right side was open for gutting. And yet in that moment, a sense of satisfaction entered his soul. He’d saved a boy and ended Venboer’s reign of terror. All in all, a good way to die.
Except the blow never came.
Confused, Kit pulled his guard back up, scrambling for footing while trying to figure out why he wasn’t dead. His enemy’s cutlass was raised for the strike, but his eyes were wide and his back was arching in clear agony. What had happened?
The boy! The damned stupid, honorable, wonderful boy had not swum away! He’d merely pretended to jump overboard, then had grabbed a cutlass from somewhere. He’d used it to cut open the bastard’s spine.
They would live! They would both live!
Kit tried to grin. He tried to laugh and dance a jig. Instead, he dropped to all fours, his breath shallow with pain. Looking down, he saw his leg was slick from blood. Not as bad as it could be. He’d live if it could be stitched up and he didn’t die of fever. But he was sitting on the deck of Venboer’s slave ship with no surgeon in sight. He couldn’t swim now, not trailing blood the whole way. Couldn’t run far either. And he damn sure couldn’t man the slave ship with just himself and the boy.
He quieted his breath a moment, willing his pounding heart to ease. He eased himself to the side then stripped off his shirt to bind his leg. And as he worked, he listened for a human sound. Nothing. No pounding feet. No screams of outrage. Just the himself and the boy on the quietly rocking boat. Was it possible? Had Venboer been so confident that he’d put no more than nine men on the ship? Was Kit now in possession of a fully sea worthy galley ship?
Kit suppressed a grin. A dozen things had to line up perfectly for this to work. But he’d just cheated certain death and killed Venboer, the worst of the Barbary pirates. On tonight of all nights, he was feeling lucky. He looked at the boy who was still standing frozen, his gaze locked on the body at their feet.
Look at me, boy. What’s your name?
The young complied slowly, his words barely audible. Alexander Jacques Morgan, sir.
Well, Alex, can you row? Can you row a boat straight and for a mile?
The boy blinked then nodded. He was coming back to himself, clarity finally entering his eyes as Kit gave him something new to focus on. I’m a damned fine rower, sir.
Good man, Alex, now listen. I can’t leave the boat. There’s things to be done here.
But you’re hurt. The boy’s eyes dropped to where the shirt was already turning red.
I’ve had worse, he returned which was true enough, but he’d never had to stitch himself up while preparing a ship for ocean voyage. Now see those two lights over there? You’re going to row straight over there. Up the beech two yards is a shack that serves the best rum in Africa. There’s a man behind the bar knows English. I named him Puck since he looks just like you’d expect, Ëcept he’s black. Give him this, and tell him it’s time. He yanked a chord off his neck and passed it to the boy who blinked down at the ugly broach.
What is it?
A peacock, I think, but that doesn’t matter. Tell Puck we sail tonight.
Tonight? the boy asked, hope sparking in his eyes. For… He couldn’t even say the word, so deep ran the desire.
Yes, Kit answered, his own voice cracking on the words. For England. After seven years, Kit was finally going home.