Chapter 1: The Pirates of Tortuga
A POWERFUL VOICE SHOT menacingly out of the darkness:
“You there in the rowboat! Identify yourselves!”
A small boat, manned by two dark figures, had been advancing with difficulty over the ink-black waters, fleeing a shore barely visible on the horizon, but halted at the sound of that command.
Quickly drawing in their oars, the oarsmen nervously fixed their eyes upon the dark mass that had emerged suddenly from the murky depths of the Caribbean.
Both in their forties, their angular features were almost hidden by thick bristling beards that had never known the touch of a comb or blade. Holes riddled their large felt hats, the brims tattered; their flannel shirts were little more than well worn rags, torn away at the shoulder and barely covering their strong chests. Large heavy pistols, of the kind used towards the end of the sixteenth century, peeped from their grimy red sashes. Their breeches were torn; their legs and feet caked in black mud.
The two fugitives quickly eyed that immense silhouette that loomed beneath the stars and shifted uneasily.
“Carmaux,” whispered the younger, “Your eyes are sharper. One of ours or one of theirs?”
“I know not; though she’s only three pistol shots from us, I can’t make out if she’s from Tortuga or the Spanish Main.”
“Could she be one of ours? A pirate ship this close to the Spanish forts? None of our ships would dare venture this far alone!”
“Well, Van Stiller, whoever they may be, they’re not going to let us pass. If we tried to flee, a volley of grapeshot would send us both to brother Beelzebub.”
The voice, even more powerful and resounding, echoed through the darkness once again.
“Who goes there!?!”
“The devil,” mumbled the one named Van Stiller.
His friend, however, clambered atop his thwart and shouted at the top of his voice:
“Who’s the scoundrel that wants to know? If you’re that curious, come down and see for yourself! We’ll fill your hide with bullets!”
No retort of grapeshot came from the sentry on the bridge; pleased, he replied:
“Advance, my brave friends. “You are welcome among the Brethren of the Coast!”
“The Brethren of the Coast!” the two men howled in joyous unison.
Carmaux added, “Sink me if I didn’t recognize the voice that gave us that bit of good news.”
“Who do you think it is?” asked his friend, taking up his oar with renewed vigour.
“There’s only one man on Tortuga brave enough to face the Spanish alone.”
“The Black Corsair.”
“Good Lord! Him!”
“He’s not going to be happy when he hears the news,” Carmaux whispered apprehensively.
“He was probably hoping to arrive in time…”
“Undoubtedly, Van Stiller.”
“That’s twice now…”
“Yes, two brothers, both hanged…”
“He’ll seek vengeance, Carmaux.”
“Aye, and we’ll be with him. The day I see that damned Governor of Maracaibo hang will be the happiest of my life. I’ve got two emeralds sewn in the lining of my breeches worth at least a thousand pieces of eight to spend in celebration. Ah! Here we are! What did I tell you? The Black Corsair’s ship!”
The ship, barely perceptible in the darkness moments earlier, now towered above the small rowboat. She was a brik, one of the racing ships the pirates of Tortuga used to chase the large Spanish galleons returning to Europe laden with the treasures of Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean. She was a good ship, with tall masts that caught at the lightest breeze, a narrow hull, a tall bow and stern, and heavily armed. Twelve cannons peered from gun ports on her port and starboard sides. Two large chasers stood atop the quarterdeck.
The pirate ship had halted to await the rowboat’s approach. A lantern on the bow cast its glow upon a dozen men, all armed with muskets, ready to fire at any suspicious movement.
The rowboat drew up beneath the ship’s bow, and the two oarsmen grasped hold of the rope thrown to them, moored their boat, took in their oars then climbed up onto the deck. Two men immediately trained muskets on them, while a third approached, shining his lantern on the new arrivals.
“Who are you?” he asked.
“As Beelzebub is my patron!” exclaimed Carmaux. “Don’t you recognize your friends?”
“Stab me! Carmaux the Biscayan!” shouted the man with the lantern. “Still alive, and after all the pirates of Tortuga mourned your death! And… Well! This is a day for resurrections! Aren’t you Van Stiller the German?”
“In the flesh.”
“You escaped the noose as well, eh?”
“Aye. I thought it might be fun to live a few more years.”
“And your captain?”
“Ahhh…” said Carmaux.
“You can tell us. Is he dead?”
“Enough!” shouted the harsh voice that had earlier threatened the two men in the rowboat.
“The Black Corsair!” muttered Van Stiller with a shiver.
“At your service, Cap’n,” replied Carmaux, raising his voice.
A man clad all in black descended from the bridge and approached, his right hand resting on the butt of a pistol tucked in his sash. He was attired with an elegance not often seen amongst the pirates of the Spanish Main, men easily satisfied with a shirt and a simple pair of breeches, and who took greater care of their weapons than their garments.
He wore a fine cloak of black silk trimmed with lace of the same of colour, black silk trousers, a fringed black sash, long black riding boots and a wide-brimmed felt hat adorned with a long black feather that curved down to his shoulders.
His face, stark against his black embroidered collar and his hat’s wide brim, was extremely pale, almost like marble, and was framed by a curled black beard.
Though his expression was sombre, his features were handsome, an elegant nose, a small mouth with lips as red as coral, a high forehead furrowed by a fine line which gave his face a slight melancholy air; eyes as black as coal, vivid and powerful, that at times burned with an intensity that could instil fear in Tortuga’s fiercest pirates. His tall proud bearing made it immediately apparent that he was of noble birth, and above all, a man accustomed to command.
As he drew nearer, Carmaux and Van Stiller exchanged a nervous glance.
“Who are you?” asked the Corsair, halting before them, his right hand still resting on the butt of his pistol.
“Two pirates from Tortuga, sir, two Brethren of the Coast,” replied Carmaux.
“You escaped from the Spanish?”
“Who was your captain?”
“The Red Corsair.”
The Black Corsair started and fell silent for a moment, his eyes slowly filling with rage.
“My brother,” he said, a slight quiver in his voice.
He grabbed Carmaux by the arm and pulled him towards the stern, almost dragging the pirate off his feet. Once below the bridge, he raised his head towards the man at the wheel.
“Morgan, maintain our present course, gunners at the ready; no man to leave his station, I want all eyes on the water; keep me informed of any suspicious movements.”
“Yes, Captain,” the pirate replied. “You’ll be warned at the first sign of any vessel.”
Still leading Carmaux by the arm, the Black Corsair made his way below deck and entered a small cabin. It was elegantly furnished and lit by a small gilded lamp. He let go of Carmaux’s arm and offered him a chair.
“At your service, Cap’n.”
The Corsair fixed his eyes upon the pirate and crossed his arms, his pale face now ashen. Twice he opened his mouth to speak only to close it again, as if afraid of asking a question, perhaps dreading to hear the man’s reply. Finally, with great effort, he whispered, “They’ve killed him, haven’t they?”
“Aye, Cap’n,” sighed Carmaux, “Just like they killed his brother, the Green Corsair.”
A savage cry of agony left the captain’s lips. Carmaux watched in silence as he turned horribly pale and clutched his heart, slumped into a chair and hid his face behind the wide brim of his hat. The Corsair remained so for several minutes, during which time the pirate heard him sob repeatedly. Then abruptly, the Corsair sprang to his feet, ashamed of that display of weakness.
All traces of grief had vanished and his face had regained its normal pallor, his eyes blazing with a dark, frightening light. He began to pace around the cabin, then returned to his chair and sat down.
“I feared I’d be too late… nevertheless, vengeance will be mine. Did they shoot him?”
“Hanged him, sir.”
“Are you certain of this?”
“I saw him with my very eyes, hanging from the gallows in the Plaza de Granada.”
“When did they kill him?”
“Early this afternoon.”
“How did he die?”
“Valiantly, sir. The Red Corsair could not have died otherwise.”
“Even when the noose had tightened ‘round his neck, he still had the strength to spit in the Governor’s face.”
“That wretch Van Guld?”
“Aye, the Flemish duke.”
“Him! Again! Always him! Three of my brothers killed by that wretch, one in betrayal and two on the gallows!”
“They were the two most daring corsairs in these waters, sir; blood enemies of the governor til their graves.”
“They sought vengeance, as I do!” the pirate shouted savagely. “I will not rest until I’ve destroyed Van Guld, his family, and the city he governs. Maracaibo has been fatal to me, but I can be just as deadly! If I have to, I’ll summon every pirate on Tortuga and rally all the buccaneers in Cuba and Santo Domingo to my banner! We’ll raze the city to the ground! Now, my friend, tell me all. How were you captured?”
“We weren’t taken by force of arms, Cap’n. We were ambushed when we were defenceless. As you know, your brother went to Maracaibo to avenge the death of the Green Corsair, having sworn, as do you, to hang the Flemish duke. There were eighty of us in all, determined to do anything, even face a squadron.
But Fate was against us; we were caught in a hurricane just as we reached the Gulf of Venezuela. It swept us into shallow waters where the waves shattered our vessel. After a long struggle, only twenty-six of us managed to reach the shore, unarmed and exhausted, barely strong enough to carry on.
“Your brother never gave up hope. Fearing the Spanish had been informed of our presence and had set out to find us, he rallied our men and slowly led us through the swamps. We were heading to find shelter in the jungle when we fell into an ambush. Three hundred Spaniards, led by Van Guld himself, quickly surrounded us and closed in, killing those that attempted to defend themselves. In the end the survivors were taken captive to Maracaibo.”
“Was my brother among them?”
“Aye, Cap’n. Though armed with only a dagger he defended himself like a lion, preferring to die on the field rather than on the gallows, but the Flemish duke had recognized him and ordered his men to take him alive. They dragged us to Maracaibo, and once we’d been beaten by every soldier and scoundrel in town, they condemned us to the gallows. Yesterday morning, Van Stiller and I strangled our guard and escaped. We hid not far from the plaza and watched them hang your brother and his crew. Later, a friend gave us his rowboat, and once it was dark we set off for Tortuga. That’s all, Cap’n.”
“My brother is dead,” the Corsair said calmly.
“I saw it with my own eyes.”
“Is he still hanging in the plaza?”
“He’ll hang there for three days.”
“Then he’ll probably be thrown into some sewer.”
The Corsair stood up and approached the pirate.
“Are you afraid of tempting fate?” he asked sombrely.
“I don’t even fear Beelzebub, Cap’n.”
“You’re not afraid to die?”
“Then you’re the type of man I need. We’ll set off immediately.”
“For where, sir?”
“Are we going to attack the city?”
“No. We don’t have enough men, but Van Guld will hear from me soon enough. Tonight, there’ll only be three of us: myself, you, and your friend.”
“Only the three of us?” asked Carmaux, amazed.
“What do you plan to do?”
“Recover my brother’s body.”
“There’s a good chance we’ll get caught, Cap’n.”
“Caught? Do you know who I am?”
“By heaven! The most daring pirate ever to set sail from Tortuga.”
“Go, have a longboat readied and wait for me on deck.”
“No need, Cap’n. Our rowboat’s already in the water and at your disposal.”
“Excellent! Wait for me on deck.”