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Council of Fire: Chapter Twenty One

       Last updated: Saturday, October 12, 2019 15:26 EDT



This was without doubt a war zone


    Before they raised anchor at Kingston, Admiral Thomas Cotes paid a call to Namur. The visit of the admiral on station gave Boscawen the opportunity to order a thorough deck-to-hold cleaning of his vessel, turning out the crew and officers in their best uniforms, and attending to rigging and fittings to make certain that Namur was seaworthy. As with Haldane, Boscawen knew Cotes, though again not well; still, they shared their joint service in the Royal Navy.

    Captain Fayerweather was nowhere to be seen as Cotes’ barge was rowed across to the shallow part of the roadstead where Namur was anchored, and Boscawen had a full complement of sideboys when Cotes was piped aboard.

    “Admiral Cotes,” Boscawen said. “A pleasure, sir.” He introduced his senior officers, as well as his French passengers. The portly Admiral of the Blue raised an eyebrow but did not make any remark in front of Messier and the young lady, but as soon as the inspection was done and the admiral’s cabin door was closed, Cotes fixed Boscawen with a frown.

    “I assume you have an explanation.”

    “For Messier and Mademoiselle LaGendière? They were shipwrecked on Barbados.”

    “For your presence here as well. Admiralty dispatches said you were en route to the Mediterranean, My Lord. What brings you to the Caribbean instead?”

    “The same thing that brought Messier here. A storm, the likes of which I have never seen.”

    “Which pushed you thousands of miles off course.”

    “It is no tall tale, Admiral. That is exactly what happened. What’s more, I have reason to believe that there is no way to return.”

    “What does that mean?”

    “There is a barrier between this part of the world and Europe. I cannot explain how, or why, but we are isolated. All of us–in Barbados, here in Jamaica . . . I don’t really know how far it extends.”

    “That’s absolutely preposterous, my Lord. What could have caused such an unbelievable circumstance?”

    “The same thing that has caused the slaves to revolt up-country. I understand your skepticism, sir. I am by nature rational. But I have already seen things that make me doubt that rationality.”

    “And the timing of these events . . .”

    “Coincides with the passage of the comet.” Boscawen reached to a shelf and brought down the Halley book. “What’s worse, there is some indication that this was predicted long ago.” He handed the volume to Cotes. “Though, I must say, not in detail.”

    “And what does Messier have to do with this? You called him an astronomer when you introduced him. How do you know he is not just a spy?”

    “In truth, Admiral, I do not.” Boscawen was about to explain about the mysterious alchemetical compass, but hesitated. Cotes was a good man, a capable sailor, but clearly skeptical about such things. Slave revolts were simply that, the uprising of poor devils in bondage–brigands and rebels, nothing more, not some evidence of a great mystical change in the world.

    I was equally skeptical, Boscawen thought. Until recently.

    For some reason he could not adequately explain, he refrained from mentioning it.

    “I exercised my judgment and chose to be sympathetic to their plight. There may be an opportunity to put them ashore at some French establishment: Martinique or Guadeloupe, perhaps.”

    “With an intimate knowledge of the workings of a British man-of-war? That seems unusually reckless, if Your Lordship pleases.”

    “They know very little of the workings, as you put it, Admiral,” Boscawen answered. “All they have seen is changes in rigging and sail; and I am fairly certain the French go through such exercises in the same way we do. Still, if it troubles you so much, I can remand them to your custody.”

    “Jamaica is no place for two French civilians, sir. Especially now.”

    “And a man-o’-war is no place for them either. But given your reaction, they will remain here until a better alternative presents itself.”



    Boscawen was relieved to have Namur out at sea, even as it hugged the shore of Jamaica island en route to Port Maria on the north side–where, Cotes suggested, the ship’s guns might do some good. He did not intend to remain at Jamaica. They had agreed that since his was a detached vessel with a flag officer aboard, it would be helpful if he took Namur north to Charleston, in hopes of determining what the state of supply vessels might be in this new environment. Cotes had not completely accepted the notion that Europe was beyond some impenetrable barrier; and furthermore, though he had shown respect for his old acquaintance, Boscawen was sure that he was more than willing to have him out of his hair and away from his command.

    What Haldane and the admiral had told him regarding the campaign thus far were not encouraging. Several weeks earlier, the rebels led by the slave Tacky had seized control of two plantations in Saint Mary Parish. There had been violence–and, based on the reports of Bayly and Cruikshank, two plantation overseers who had escaped with their lives and stumbled, exhausted, into Kingston–there had been worse things.

    The obeah-men, so the two men said, had not only assisted the murderous slaves in killing men, women and children on the plantation, but they had caused those dead to walk again, adding to their forces as they marched north. Within a few days Haldane had dispatched five dozen men from the 74th Regiment of Foot, following the road over Archer’s Ridge; a week later another detachment was sent after them. There had been no word received from either.

    We will not go ashore, Boscawen told Cotes before leaving Kingston. My men are not infantrymen. And as for the obeah-men, whatever they had the power to do, he hoped they could not do it at a distance.

    It took almost three days for Namur to cross through the Windward Passage and make her way westward along the north side of Jamaica. The ship’s chart room was becoming crowded with information on Caribbean soundings; it had originally been outfitted for Mediterranean sailing, and Boscawen wondered if he would ever have use for those charts again.

    The shoals and rocks of Jamaica were not as much an issue as the weather. This was the time of year where vessels in the Americas usually made their way north; the winter hazards were mostly gone, while spring and summer presented the threat of storms and wind–and shipworms. It was not in the admiral’s personal experience, but the Navy possessed considerable knowledge of and experience with the destructive creatures. The nearest shipyard was Charleston. If Namur became sufficiently unseaworthy to make it there, his status as vice-admiral and Admiralty lord would be worth even less than it had already become. Accordingly, he kept the men busy examining the lower hull looking for any sign that the creatures had attached themselves. It was unpleasant, dirty work, but he was willing to have crew members curse his name down in the dark, damp recesses of the hold than to be forced to scuttle the ship and become a reluctant landsman.

    Even before the ship passed the promontory marked on his chart as “Blooming Point,” Boscawen could see the fires from inland. The destruction along the coast was apparent even without use of a glass: wrecked buildings and toppled windmills were visible, and there was not another vessel in sight. He had seen this before on the coasts of Acadia, where Britain and France–and its Indian allies–had waged a destructive campaign, sinking ships and burning villages. This was without doubt a war zone.

    Port Maria was a small town, nestled in a cove that faced east, and was slightly sheltered from the open ocean. It had no ships in port–perhaps they had cleared out in advance of the rebels. Namur came in as close as was prudent–within cannon range–and Admiral Boscawen ordered the guns run out, though he did not know what the target might be. While he was considering his options, he saw a small boat rowing out from the shore with a white pennon flying from a post at the bow.

    The boat did not approach too closely. It bore a black man standing upright wearing something approximating an officer’s uniform, while two ragged men rowed in a somewhat mechanical fashion. Through his glass, Boscawen could see that the two rowers had been badly injured in some fashion . . . and when the boat came as near as it seemed willing to go, he found himself looking into two pairs of dead eyes.

    “Commander,” the uniformed man said. He seemed to speak the word in a normal tone of voice, but it carried well, resonating across the water. “May I inquire regarding your intentions?”



    “I might ask with whom I am speaking,” Boscawen said.

    “My name is Takyi, which you whites pronounce as ‘Tacky.’ I command here.”

    “By whose authority?”

    The black man laughed derisively, as if it was the most ridiculous question. “Why, by my own, of course! Among the Fante people I was a king, before cowardly men sold me with many others to labor here. But we are free now, free!”

    “That is not your decision to make,” Boscawen answered. “I may have something to say about that.”

    “I doubt that,” he said. “Obeah makes us powerful. Your bullets cannot harm us.”

    As Boscawen considered his reply, Pascal came beside him. “Would you like me to test that assertion, My Lord? He’s giving us a pretty clear shot.”

    “No,” Boscawen said quietly. “It accomplishes nothing; if you shoot him down for nothing but insolence, it might well inflame his followers. If indeed he cannot be harmed by rifle fire, it will disquiet the men.”

    “But that insolence deserves a reply, sir.”

    “I intend to reply, Pascal. Hold your fire.” Boscawen took a deep breath and said, “I am sure you believe that, Tacky, or whatever name you give yourself. What I know is that you have committed murder and other crimes, and you may save the lives of your followers if you surrender to me. I am not beholden to the governor of this island and will show more mercy than he is likely to do.”

    “Mercy, is it?” Tacky said. “You speak of mercy–to people who have been dragged from their native land to labor here against their will, to suffer the lash and torture, to die from injury and disease so that whites can put sugar on their tables and rum in their bellies. What mercy derives from slavery, Commander?”

    “I cannot judge your situation. I only seek to enforce justice.”

    “I spit on your justice.” He reached inside his uniform coat and touched something; the two dead-eyed rowers began to turn the boat about. “I advise you to leave Port Maria, Commander. In fact, you would be best served to leave Jamaica entirely. My–servants–” he smiled, and the expression disturbed Boscawen–“will otherwise take your fine ship away from you.”

    “I doubt that,” Boscawen said. “Get out of my sight, before we test your theory of invulnerability.”

    Tacky laughed again, as the boat slowly began to retreat toward the shore. “I have given you fair warning,” he said.

    Boscawen felt, rather than saw, Pascal come to attention.

    “My Lord, I ask leave to take a boat and teach that boy a lesson he won’t soon forget.”



    “Refused, Lieutenant, unless you are contemplating mutiny against my authority.” He angrily turned to Pascal. “This is an unknown situation, with unforeseeable perils. This Tacky will be dealt with in due course, and not by a hotheaded junior officer and some restless marines. Do you understand, sir?”

    “Yes, sir. Of course, sir.”

    Boscawen turned away again and gazed through the eyepiece of his spyglass at the shore, where Tacky’s boat was approaching. As he watched, he could see figures begin to walk out of the little town onto the dock.

    Silently, he cursed himself for losing his temper, even modestly. The lieutenant had every right to feel offended at the way in which his commanding officer had been addressed–and by a black slave at that!–but he repeated silently what he had told Admiral Cotes: My men are not infantrymen.

    Tacky’s boat came up alongside the long dock that projected into the water; but instead of disembarking, he remained on board, cupping his hands and shouting something toward the half-ruined town.

    There was a long, disturbingly quiet pause that gave Boscawen a chill despite the heat and humidity. Then, as he watched, the people on the dock–moving with a strange, jerky shuffle, began to walk forward and drop into the water. As they bobbed to the surface they began to move slowly out to sea, heading for Namur: first a half dozen, and then a dozen more, and a dozen more after that–men and women, young and old, with vacant, unseeing eyes.

    My servants will take your fine ship away from you.

    “Orders, Admiral?”

    Pascal had looked across the water at the people coming slowly toward the ship; he looked anxious and perhaps afraid, but ready for orders.

    “Where is Gustavus, Lieutenant?”

    “Below decks, My Lord, helping with the guns.”

    “Fetch him, if you please, and pass the word to our passengers to come above decks as well.”

    “During a–” Pascal began, then saluted. “Yes, My Lord,” he said, and dashed down the steps onto the main deck. Boscawen could hear him calling for Gustavus as he went.

    The dead-eyed men and women continued to drop into the water. They had ten, or perhaps as much as fifteen minutes . . . and if, indeed, they were somehow unaffected by musket fire . . .

    A broadside would tear a few of them apart–but even with chain shot loaded it would not be very effective with small targets near the waterline. And there seemed to be more and more of them coming.

    To take my fine ship, Boscawen thought. They are coming to take the ship.

    He saw Messier escorting Mademoiselle LaGendière up the steps on to the quarterdeck. She looked remarkably composed and held the alchemetical compass in her hands, as if she was expecting to make use of it.

    “I do not wish to disturb you, my lady,” he said to her, “but I think that we are about to come under attack by . . .”

    “Revenants,” she said. “Walking dead.” She held up the compass, and he could see the liquid within tilted in the direction of the land. As she walked, however, it seemed to change direction very slightly, as if it was focusing on one particular place. As always, the young woman seemed completely composed. She had shown little emotion of any kind since coming aboard Namur and appeared completely unfazed by the idea of animated corpses crossing the water.

    Gustavus appeared at the top of the steps. He looked fearful as he glanced from Boscawen to the water and back.

    “Come here, lad,” Boscawen said. “Tell me what you can of this business.”

    “It’s . . . it’s obeah-magic, My Lord,” Gustavus said. “Those are dead people. Some obeah-man, or perhaps more than one, have animated them. They will feel no pain and will move as long as they are controlled.”

    “These obeah-men. They would be close by?”

    “Close enough to see their work, yes, My Lord. And for such a working they would be together, sharing their power.”

    Boscawen looked about him and located a piece of marking-chalk. He took it and drew a rough circle five paces across, then gestured to Mademoiselle LaGendière to stand within it.

    “Now turn, my lady, if you please. Clockwise. Very slowly.”

    She did as she was asked, and Boscawen watched as the liquid inclined itself higher in the glass–and then began to decline once more.”

    “Stop!” he said. “Turn back. Again, slowly.”

    It reached its highest point, and Boscawen held up his hand. He bent down and drew a line perpendicular to the bow and stern, and then another line from the center of the circle through the place where the young lady was standing, and out to its edge.

    “Mr. Pascal,” he said, “if you please, turn us about . . . two points to starboard. And prepare to fire.”

    The order was passed. “When we raise sail, My Lord, they’ll think we’re running away.”

    “Let them think as they like. Two points, no more. Fire on my order.”

    The sails began to fill with wind, and the ship slowly began to turn. Boscawen watched carefully as the ship moved . . .

    “Fire! Now!” he shouted. “Come one point to port, and fire again when ready!”

    The roar of more than thirty cannon erupted, hurling chain shot–intended to take down rigging, and crew, from an enemy vessel–directly upward and toward the shore, where it crashed into the partly-destroyed buildings at the edge of the town. When the smoke cleared and the echo of the blast began to dissipate, he could hear the sounds of gun crews hauling the cannon back and preparing them for the next volley.

    For several seconds more, the revenants–or walking dead, or whatever they could be called–continued to make their way toward the ship . . . and then, of a sudden, like puppets whose strings had been cut, they stopped moving and subsided, some sinking, some floating on the water, so that the calm water between Namur and Port Maria was suddenly littered with the dead.

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