Birds of Prey

Birds of Prey by Wilbur Smith Read Free Book Online

Book: Birds of Prey by Wilbur Smith Read Free Book Online
Authors: Wilbur Smith
However, charcoal braziers smouldered at the foot of each mast, and the wedges were knocked out of the gunports with muffled wooden mallets so that the sound of the blows would not carry.
    Aboli pushed his way through the scurrying figures to where Hal stood at the foot of the mast. Around his bald head he wore a scarlet cloth whose tail hung down his back, and thrust into his
sash was a cutlass. Under one arm he carried a rolled bundle of coloured silk. ‘From your father.’ He thrust the bundle into Hal’s arms. ‘You know what to do with
them!’ He gave Hal’s pigtail a tug. ‘Your father says that you are to remain at the masthead no matter which way the fight goes. Do you hear now?’
    He turned and hurried back towards the bows. Hal grimaced rebelliously at his broad back, but climbed dutifully into the shrouds. When he reached the masthead he scanned the darkness swiftly,
but as yet there was nothing to see. Even the aroma of spice had evaporated. He felt a stab of concern that he might only have imagined it. ‘It is only that the chase has come out of our
wind,’ he reassured himself. ‘She is probably abeam of us by now.’
    He attached the banner Aboli had given him to the signal halyard, ready to fly it at his father’s order. Then he removed the cover from the pan of the falconet. He checked the tension of
the string before setting his longbow into the rack beside the bundles of yard-long arrows. Now there was nothing to do but wait. Below him the ship was unnaturally quiet, not even a bell to mark
the passage of the hours, only the soft song of the sails and the muted accompaniment of the rigging.
    The day came upon them with the suddenness that in these African seas he had come to know so well. Out of the dying night rose a tall bright tower, shining and translucent as an ice-covered alp
– a great ship under a mass of gleaming canvas, her masts so tall they seemed to rake the last pale stars from the sky.
    ‘Sail ho!’ he pitched his voice so that it would carry to the deck below but not to the strange ship that lay, a full league away, across the dark waters. ‘Fine on the larboard
beam!’
    His father’s voice floated back to him. ‘Masthead! Break out the colours!’
    Hal heaved on the signal halyard, and the silken bundle soared to the masthead. There it burst open and the tricolour of the Dutch Republic streamed out on the southeaster, orange and snowy
white and blue. Within moments the other banners and long pennants burst out from the head of the mizzen and the foremast, one emblazoned with the cipher of the VOC, die Verenigde Oostindische
Compagnie, the United East India Company. The regalia was authentic, captured only four months previously from the Heerlycke Nacht . Even the standard of the Council of Seventeen was genuine.
There would scarce have been time for the captain of the galleon to have learned of the capture of his sister ship and so to question the credentials of this strange caravel.
    The two ships were on converging courses – even in darkness Sir Francis had judged well his interception. There was no call for him to alter course and alarm the Dutch captain. But within
minutes it was clear that the Lady Edwina , despite her worm-riddled hull, was faster through the water than the galleon. She must soon begin to overtake the other ship, which he must avoid
at all costs.
    Sir Francis watched her through the lens of his telescope, and at once he saw why the galleon was so slow and ungainly: her mainmast was jury-rigged, and there was much other evidence of damage
to her other masts and rigging. He realized that she must have been caught in some terrible storm in the eastern oceans – which would also account for her belated arrival off her landfall on
the Agulhas Cape. He knew that he could not alter sail without alarming the Dutch captain, but he had to pass across her stern. He had prepared for this: he signed to the carpenter, at the rail,
who with his

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