Prologue - Life Turned Upside Down
Ten years ago
The sound of a cannon being fired shattered the silence, and with it the last vestiges of the night. Most of the ship’s inhabitants were asleep and therefore rudely thrown into the growing melée of chaos and destruction.
“Lord Burke, Sir!”
Usually, William Blake, one of the younger crew members, knocked before entering the largest cabin aboard, but due to the circumstances, he dropped his manners and stormed in, only half-dressed and shaking with fear. The youngest crew member was on his first, and judging by the way the ship began to lean to one side, last tour of the Caribbean Seas.
Peter, Lord Burke of Northampshire and member of the Queen’s Marine High Council, was already up and began to dress. One way or another, he was responsible for both the ship and the crew, even though he had a formidable captain with Sir David Siegel.
The female voice coming from the bed was thick with sleep. If anyone could sleep through all the chaos, it was Peter’s wife, Lady Elizabeth Burke. While it was rather uncustomary to have a woman aboard (there were a lot of sailors out there who thought women to be in the company of bad luck), Peter had used his status to have her with him. After almost ten years of marriage and countless attempts, they finally were expecting a child, and if both his mother and mother-in-law were right with their guesses, Elizabeth was carrying a son, an heir to Peter’s title and lands.
“Go back to sleep, my dear. I’ll be right back.”
Peter hated nothing more than lying, in general, but even more so to his lovely, very understanding wife, but he didn’t want to put more stress on her than necessary. Especially in her already delicate condition, any kind of trouble could be dangerous to both mother and child. Due to an apparent hereditary issue, many women on Elizabeth’s maternal side suffered from terrible blood pressure, causing spontaneous fainting (in the best cause) or death during childbirth (in the worst case). Lady Caroline Mitchell, Peter’s mother-in-law, herself lost her own mother to this problem, and she was, of course, worried that her only child would suffer the same.
“Why is this ship leaning to one side?”
Apparently, Elizabeth was fully awake by now. Peter, still with his back to her, heaved a sigh before steeling himself and faced her.
“Hon, I didn’t want to worry you, but it seems that we’re under fire of unknown origin.”
“That’s what I’m going to find out now.”
Before Elizabeth could form another question (she was, uncommonly for women of her time, raised to speak her mind and ask a load of questions), Peter silenced her with a kiss before following Blake up to the deck.
“Lord Burke, Sir?”
“I beg your forgiveness, but you have a very lovely wife.”
They had reached the door leading to the open deck, and they could hear most of the crew shouting and cursing, but Peter stopped for a moment and turned to the younger man.
“You don’t have to apologize, Blake, especially when you’re pointing out an obvious fact.” The younger man only nodded. “And now we have to make sure she’s stays safe.” And with that, Peter opened the door, immediately surrounded by a light fog, due to the fires started by the cannons.
After a few minutes, he finally located Captain Siegel up on the bridge, shouting orders to the soldiers and sailors beneath him.
“How did we get surprised by them?”
Peter himself had to shout the question, even though he was standing right next to Siegel. Cannons being fired tend to be loud; add some fog around the ship, and the sound is worse than a heavy thunderstorm.
“We barely had entered this wall of fog when the first cannon ball struck,” Siegel shouted back, before issuing yet another order at his frantic crew. “I only can guess that it’s coming from this side,” he pointed to his right, “judging by both the damage of this first shot and the way the ship is leaning to this side.”
Peter nodded his consent to Siegel’s estimations. While such walls of fog were nothing out of the ordinary back home in England, both on land and sea, experiencing them here, in the warm climate of the Caribbean Sea, was definitely NOT common.
He was about to ask Siegel about his plans when the whole ship was rocked by the impact of yet another cannon ball, this time quite in the middle, where they stashed the food and other supplies. By now, almost all of the men still alive were in a frenzy, torn between trying to save their own lives and protecting the ship.
Despite all the noise around them, the clear voice of Elizabeth was easily to hear. Panic gripped Peter’s heart. What on God’s green Earth was she doing on deck?
Somehow, he made it down the few stairs, despite the fact that the ship was more and more tilting towards the left. Beneath his feet, the heavy cannons could be heard rolling from the right to the other side, bringing the ship and its crew closer and closer to the end.
“Elizabeth, my dear, what are you doing out here?”
“I couldn’t stay back in there and listen to the cries of the men.” She gazed over his shoulder, and apparently for the first time since stepping out, she noticed the strange setting around them. “Didn’t you tell me that there’s no fog in the Caribbean?”
“I did, indeed, but apparently my sources weren’t exactly true about that.”
Another cannon ball struck wood, and despite his upbringing, Peter let out a scream (though it was closer to a shriek to his ears). Elizabeth did the same, and they only had the blink of an eye before the ship tilted further to the side and finally reached a 90° angle of its usual position on the water. They saw with horror in their eyes as David Siegel fell into the dark waves beneath them, as well as other men who weren’t able to grab a rope or anything else to hold on.
And even though they had a quite good grip on the fishing net mounted to the wall over them at the moment, Peter knew instinctively that, sooner or later, he and his wife would join the soldiers and sailors in the water. Which happened only moments later, when Elizabeth slipped through his grasp, her full lips parted in a silent scream before her body hit the water and vanished beneath the crest.
Peter jumped after her, but between the fog, debris from the ship and the dark water, he couldn’t make out her silhouette beneath the water. Besides that, his clothes were soaked thoroughly and got heavier by the second. Just as he was to succumb to the surprisingly cold water, his eyes saw the other ship – much larger than his, towering over the wreckage like a dark shadow, the dark flag on top of the highest mast waving in the wind.