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An excerpt from

The Sheriff's Catch

James Vella-Bardon

‘Take his keys!’ I yelled out in Sabir, feeling like I spoke the thoughts of most present. ‘Take his bloody keys!’

Dimas’s eyes widened as I stood off the bench and pointed at him, still shouting at the other slaves to act. As the overseer made to speak, a brawny arm suddenly curled about his throat, which belonged to a hefty Berber strokesman. The enormous slave nodded at me once, before he spoke to the rowers alongside him.

‘Get the keys.’

He then bent over sideways and shoved the stunned Dimas underwater. The crazed overseer kicked with his feet and twisted and turned, yet it was all in vain as the bulging muscles rippled in the arm of his victim turned aggressor. Meanwhile another slave had already reached Dimas’s side and undone his huge belt, with the heavy clanking keys passing through many hands even before the overseer had stopped kicking. The large Berber then pulled Dimas’s head from the bilge water and wrung his neck for good measure.

‘Be silent,’ he boomed across the benches, ‘and let none escape without my command!’

Having declared himself the leader of the slave revolt, the giant then turned his tattooed face towards our side of the deck, waiting for us all to be freed. When the last shackle was undone he strode towards the steps before us, crying out to the surviving rowers who already milled behind him.

‘Whosoever craves freedom, join with us now!’

A roar was returned as most hurried after him, with only a handful still clinging to their benches in fear. I flung Esteban away as Maerten and I hurried out, scarcely believing our luck as we ran after the fleeing rows of slaves. A swish of bilge water was heard at our feet before we ran towards the steps. As we hurried through the infirmary I could see that it was choked with countless wounded men, who groaned aloud at our passing while the physicians and surgeons stared at us in disbelief.

Upon reaching the main deck we were greeted by a flash of lightning, which streaked the nightly heavens. The sight left us startled before our ears were deafened by a roar of thunder. Our galley continued to lurch leeward as the end of great waves spattered our decks. The scent of the open ocean left me feeling half-revived, as I took in the chaos which Costa had mentioned. Ahead of us, guards beat back mutineers before they too were set upon by the Berber and his freed cohorts. We all swayed to the growing throes of the ocean, and at the prow a despairing nobleman flung gold doubloons overboard and cried out in despair.

‘Forgive us, oh Lord, for we have sinned!’

Furious pleas echoed within the officers’ cabin behind us, to what sounded like the loud beating of fists upon a table. A second bolt of lightning cut the sky in half, when another thunderclap drowned out all the shouting. Black waves rose as high as the poop deck, pounding both prow and stern with a fast-growing fury. When I turned my head, I could see that the winds tore rigging off the mainmast as if it were lace.

A hand then wrapped itself around my throat, and I turned and saw Georg. As I grappled with him he cried out to the other wardens, with his face turning as dark as the clouds gathered above us. Two of his men seized Maerten, who pushed and shoved at their grasp like a fiend. Amidst our struggle the galley was shoved towards land like a squealing child led by the ear, causing us to wobble across the slippery boards underfoot. Our mad dance was soon ended when a burst of seawater scooped the five of us over the ship’s rail.

‘Christ wept!’

The oath left my throat as I seized the edge of the gunwale. Hailstones the size of small pebbles pelted my head, and my shoulder was half-wrenched from its socket as one of the wardens grabbed hold of my ankle. When I looked down I recognised the gaunt face of Georg who returned a fierce glare, while trying to reach for my cloak with his other hand. I kicked at his face until he finally let go of me, dropping with a howl into the dark swirl below.

‘Abel!’

I raised my head towards Maerten, flooded with fear as I saw him dangling by the ledge alongside me.

‘Hold on!’ I cried at him, trying to reach for his tunic with one hand.

Having lost its mooring, the Santa Maria sheered shoreward, as another westerly screamed across the ocean. We teetered violently along the ship’s side, until Maerten’s grip was loosened and he fell into the furious waves.

‘Marti!’

With a howl, I released my hold and fell in after him. Breath burst from my lungs as I plunged deep into the black icy ocean, with its salt burning my wounds and grazes. I then struggled back to the surface for a gasp of air, seeing the youth struggling for breath alongside me.

‘Marti,’ I cried again, as we snatched each other’s forearms.

The ocean hauled us apart as my eyes briefly met the Fleming’s.

‘Abel…’ he groaned, as we were flung in different directions by the raging sea. When I lost sight of him I cried his name again and again, then returned my attention to keeping afloat. In the corner of my eye I spotted a wayward plank of wood, and no sooner did I grab it than I was borne to the heavens upon a white crest, coughing up the water that flew into my face.

When the wave toppled I still clung to the wood like a barnacle, finding myself pulled far below the surf by a vicious current. My left shoulder was slashed by a reef edge before I was hurled back above water, with my cries muffled by the roaring thunder.