“I got her, Cap’n! On the horizon straight ahead!”
The shout came from the lookout, and Elliott’s heart began to race as it always did when preparing for battle.
“A first-rate with two second-rates flanking.”
“Arrogant pricks,” Elliott muttered as he kept her steady.
“Battle stations!” called the bo’sun.
The crew of the Silver Shilling had rehearsed this moment for weeks on end as they sailed north and east from the Caribbean with an empty hold, ignoring every potential prize in their quest for this one. Indeed, they had prepared for taking a much larger fleet, a risk that had been voted upon. Now, when faced with half the force they’d imagined, the crew was ever more eager.
It filled the holds of the first-rate British frigate and fired the blood of every man in his crew.
For his part, Elliott was not interested in the gold.
He wanted blood.
More specifically, the fleet commander’s blood.
Elliott looked up and saw the Union Jack fluttering across the moon and a fleet pennant trailing yards beyond it.
“The fleet’s spotted us, Cap’n. They’re trimming their sails.”
Aye, he had planned for this, too. It could be they would await the laggard frigate or it could be they had ascertained the Silver Shilling was not, in fact, part of the Royal Navy (although Elliott had been very careful to mind the details of his performance) and attack.
“Are they coming about?”
“Nay. All sterns to us. No battle preparations are underway that I can see.”
Pinpricks of light sparked in the distance ahead of them.
“They’re signaling.” Pause. “Old code. ‘Identify yourselves.’”
The signalman above flashed his lantern: HMS Royal Oak, bound for Virginia. Heavy with troops. Captain Lucien Bancroft at the helm.
There was a long silence, during which every man on deck awaited the fleet’s response. The wind filled the sails, sending them hurtling toward their prey as if blessing their purpose.
“We join the fleet,” called the signalman. “Breakfast at sunrise in the commander’s salon.”
Elliott grinned. “Accept with many thanks.”
Preparations were swift but orderly as his lieutenants, bo’sun, quartermaster, and master gunner barked the orders, the Flemish mercenary soldiers readied their swords, muskets, and bayonets, and the Silver Shilling gained speed.
“Aye!” called the signalman and the master gunner at once.
Provided the fleet commander did not suspect a ruse, the plan would give Elliott every bit of satisfaction he needed, and then…
And then he would collect prizes while he awaited the outcome of the war, which would determine in precisely which country’s dirt Elliott would plant his feet and his crops.
He pulled on the collar of his uniform—essential to this bit of trickery—chafing at its restrictions after so many weeks wearing next to nothing. Sailing a pirate vessel had given him a sense of freedom he had never had before and now, back in his old dress, he resented the necessity even more.
They approached the fleet, now little more than a mile away, their sails shining in the moonlight, lovely, a testament to man’s ability to harness the wind and turn it to his advantage. Full sail in moonlight was, Elliott thought, the second most beautiful thing he had ever seen.
Yet he would never love the sea.
Indeed, he despised it and had from the moment he’d stepped foot on the deck of a ship over fifteen years before.
“The outer vessels lag the primary by a half mile. The larboard vessel is drifting out, making way for us to pass by and come abrest the command vessel.”
Elliott could hear the master gunner on the deck below bellowing the orders for the strategy that action would merit. It was exactly what Elliott had hoped they would do, and made even more sense after the invitation to dine with the fleet commander.
“Twelve yards’ distance each starboard and larboard, drifting farther out and still lagging the primary by a quarter mile and dropping back.”
Twelve yards on either side. It wasn’t enough. His guns could sink them both at once within one hundred yards, but burning rubble would sink the Silver Shilling.
“Drop back. Signal the escorts to widen up.”
Elliott waited. The command itself could give up the game.
“Message received and will be accommodated, Captain.”
He released the breath he had not noticed he had been holding. “We go forward at fifty yards each side.”
More waiting. He glanced up at the moon and noted the time just before the bells on all four ships rung one hour past midnight.
“Fifty yards, Captain.”
“Speed,” Elliott called down to the bo’sun. The command was issued, the sails billowed, and the Silver Shilling shot forward.
“Avast, Royal Oak! What’s the hurry?”
“This,” Elliott muttered. “PORTS OPEN!”
The cannon blasts from both sides of the Silver Shilling heaved and rocked the ship as it gained speed sailing between the two escorts and firing. The stench of brimstone filled Elliott’s nostrils, the sounds of men’s death screams filled his ears, the sight of two bonfires lighting the night assaulted his eyes.
His crew worked together without friction, firing and reloading, manning the water and sand brigade to catch every tiny spark that alit on the Silver Shilling, whilst Elliott and his watch kept their eye on the target, which was now manning its guns.
But it was too late for them.
“CEASE FIRE! DROP SAIL! RUN UP THE JOLLY ROGER!”
Elliott turned the wheel hard to larboard and the Silver Shilling heeled sharp until its starboard guns faced the stern of the gold ship.
Lieutenant Yeardley stood high in the crow’s nest, the speaking trumpet held tight to his mouth. “COMMANDER KITTERIDGE! SURRENDER AND PREPARE TO BE BOARDED!”
Even as the Silver Shilling’s black flag emblazoned with a white hanged man climbed up the main mast, the Union Jack was struck whilst the white flag of surrender climbed up his prey’s.
The HMS Conquest was bigger than the Silver Shilling, but it was far more vulnerable situated as it was with its nearly unarmed stern facing thirty-two loaded cannon and ten swivels.
Elliott handed the wheel off to one of his helmsmen and stalked to the rigging, ripping off his despised uniform as he went until he was dressed in naught but shirt, breeches, and boots.
“RAXHAM!” Commander Kitteridge bellowed once Elliott had climbed far enough to catch a rope. “What is the meaning of this?”
“That’s Judas to you, Kitteridge!” Elliott returned. “One shot, and you will suffer the same fate as your escorts.” He gripped the rope in one hand and his sword in the other, then leaped off the rigging. He pumped the rope until he was swinging far over the poop deck of the first-rate, then released it to land on his feet in front of the man who had sent him into hell, chased after him, and tied him up to make sure he stayed there for a great long while.
The man sneered as Elliott’s mercenaries swarmed past them, shooting and slashing and hacking. “We surrendered.”
“I don’t trust you,” Elliott said calmly whilst the battle raged on around him. “You’ve a history of betraying me.”
Commander Kitteridge’s mouth tightened. “Back to that, are we? Do not think to cozen me you did not like my cock as much as I liked your sweet arse.”
Why had he never noticed how utterly unimaginative Kitteridge was in his taunts? “I’m here for the gold,” Elliott continued politely. “Finding you in command is Fate smiling upon me.”
“There is no gold on this ship.”
Elliott heaved a longsuffering sigh, during which moment Kitteridge thought to catch him off guard. Elliott blocked the sword strike, then raised his pistol and fired once.
“And now we are at an end to that,” Elliott said to the headless body at his feet. He looked up and around. His men had quelled any uprisings, which would not have been difficult, considering that the working conditions on any given Royal Navy vessel made loyalty a scarce commodity. The two escorts were still burning and Elliott’s crew was out fishing for survivors to make sure they did not remain survivors. The fire crew on the Silver Shilling was still working feverishly and would do so until the ships burnt themselves out. He raised an arm to the crew that hung in the Silver Shilling’s rigging, awaiting the signal.
It took hours to strip the vessel of its gold, provisions, and other cargo, working through the night and into the dawn and past noon. Elliott made the first inventory himself as it came aboard the Silver Shilling, and Old Ben made the second as it was stowed. One mistake, one suspicion of dishonesty on his part, one clever omission of one coin would have Elliott mutinied in a trice. But with two ledgers separated by a deck and half a ship that the purser would verify at the end of the task, the mercenaries would not be able to accuse Elliott of cheating them.
“The guns go down with the ship,” Elliott said absently when his purser inquired mid-afternoon. They had taken everything but the men and the cannon. Sadly, Elliott had neither the space to accommodate the guns nor the crew to sail Kitteridge’s first-rate into port.
By twilight, Elliott was standing on his own poop deck, his arms crossed over his chest and his hair whipping in the wind, surveying the Royal Navy frigate, her men huddling amidships. He and every one of his men had worked two sunrises and sunsets through without so much as a drooped eyelid. They still had hours to go before they could rest.
“Some of the men are requesting a berth,” Yeardley said. “What do you want to do with them?”
Request was a slight understatement. The captured men aboard the Conquest were begging. Weeping, wailing, gnashing teeth. And even though it was not so long ago Elliott, too, would have been on his knees begging, now he felt nothing.
“Neca eos omnes.” Elliott said.
Elliott glanced at the ferocious mahogany-and-steel beauty riding his prow, who never rested, never flagged, never led them wrong. The more superstitious of his crew had begun to believe she protected the Silver Shilling and her captain and crew, that she had pointed the way straight to the pay fleet, and that she had summoned the wind to speed them to their prey.
“We’ll head into the trade winds and catch the Thunderstorm.”
Yeardley laughed. “Batting at flies after killing a lion?”
“A damselfly, mayhap, aye.”
“Ah. Those are difficult to catch.”
Elliott grinned. “Not with her icon pointing the way.”