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The Tiger's Prey

Wilbur Smith



  1 London Bridge Street,

  London SE1 9GF

  Published by HarperCollinsPublishers 2017

  Copyright © Orion Mintaka (UK) Ltd 2017

  Cover layout design by Claire Ward © HarperCollinsPublishers Ltd 2017

  Cover photographs © Collaboration J.S. except (Brandenburg Gate).

  Map © John Gilkes 2017

  Wilbur Smith asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work

  A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library

  This novel is entirely a work of fiction. The names, characters and incidents portrayed in it, while at times based on historical figures, are the work of the author’s imagination.

  All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. By payment of the required fees, you have been granted the non-exclusive, non-transferable right to access and read the text of this e-book on-screen. No part of this text may be reproduced, transmitted, down-loaded, decompiled, reverse engineered, or stored in or introduced into any information storage and retrieval system, in any form or by any means, whether electronic or mechanical, now known or hereinafter invented, without the express written permission of HarperCollins e-books

  Source ISBN: 9780007535910

  Ebook Edition © 2017 ISBN: 9780007535934

  Version: 2017-06-23


  I dedicate this book to my wife Niso,

  who illuminates my life day and night.

  I love you more than words can wield the matter.



  Title Page



  The Tiger’s Prey

  About Wilbur Smith

  About Tom Harper

  Also by Wilbur Smith

  About the Publisher

  The Dowager was carrying too much canvas. A warm monsoon breeze whipped the ocean into white peaks that glittered in the sun that shone from a sapphire sky. Her sails bulged, topsails and topgallants straining fit to snap their sheets. Her hull, heavy-laden, wallowed in the high waves rolling across the Indian Ocean. She was running for her life.

  Her master, Josiah Inchbird, stood on the quarterdeck and looked astern at the ship following them. She’d appeared at dawn, long and low and sleek as a ravenous wolf. Red-painted gun ports chequered her black hull. She was gaining on them.

  He checked the clouds of canvas flying overhead. The wind had stiffened; and the sails were straining at their seams. He dared not fly much more without risking disaster. On the other hand, disaster was certain if he did not take that risk.

  ‘Mr Evans,’ he hailed his mate. ‘All hands to set staysails.’

  Evans, a hollow-eyed Welshman in his late thirties, glanced up at the sails and frowned. ‘In this breeze, sir? She can’t take much more.’

  ‘Damn you, Mr Evans, but you’ll get those sails bent on now. I’ll hang our laundry from the yards if it’ll get us another half a knot.’

  Inchbird had spent twenty years sailing these oceans, working his way gradually up to command while lesser men with better connections had overhauled him at every turn. He’d survived voyages when half the crew had been buried over the side in their hammocks, in the pestilential ports of India and the Spice Islands. He wasn’t going to jeopardize his ship now.

  ‘What are you doing?’

  A woman’s voice, calm and authoritative, cut across the quarterdeck. Some of the crew paused, halfway up the ratlines. After three weeks at sea, the sight of a woman on the quarterdeck was still a spectacle they enjoyed.

  Inchbird bit back the curse that rose naturally to his lips. ‘Senhora Duarte. This doesn’t concern you. It is better if you remain below decks.’

  She glanced up at the sails. Her long dark hair blew out in the wind, framing a smooth olive-skinned face. Her body was so slim that it seemed a strong gust might have whipped her overboard. Yet Inchbird knew from bitter experience that she was not so frail.

  ‘Of course it concerns me,’ she said. ‘If you lose this ship, we all will die.’

  The men were still watching from the rigging. Evans, the mate, lashed out with his starter. ‘Get on with it, lads, or you’ll feel the bite of my rope end.’

  Reluctantly, they began to move again. Inchbird felt his authority ebbing away as the woman stared him down.

  ‘Get below,’ he ordered. ‘Do I have to tell you what pirates will do to ladies they capture?’

  ‘Deck there,’ called the lookout in the crosstrees. ‘She’s running up her colours.’ Then, so loud they all heard it on deck, ‘Sweet Jesus.’

  He didn’t have to say any more. They could all see it: the black flag snapping from their enemy’s mainmast and, a second later, the red flag at her fore.

  ‘No quarter!’ was the warning it gave them.

  On the Fighting Cock, Captain Jack Legrange watched the flags snap taut in the breeze and grinned hungrily. They’d been shadowing the merchantman for three days, ever since they sighted her off Madagascar. She’d sailed late in the season, missing the convoys that most ships used as protection against the pirates who infested the Indian Ocean. The breeze had backed in the night and he’d crowded on more sail, betting that his ship could sail closer to the wind than the fat merchantman. The wager had paid off: they were now only a league or so back, and closing fast.

  He looked down the length of his ship. She had started life as a Bristol slaver, plying the route from East Africa to the colonies in America and the Caribbean. Legrange had been first mate – until, one day, the master discovered him stealing and had him flogged. Next night, with the blood still soaking through his bandages, he’d led a gang from the forecastle and hanged the captain from his own yardarm. Then they’d sailed the ship to a deserted cove, where they’d cut down her forecastle and quarterdeck, stripped out all her partitions and bulkheads, and pierced a dozen new gun ports on either side. They’d sold the healthy slaves for a profit, saving a few of the prettiest for their own amusement; the unhealthy ones had gone over the side weighted with a length of chain – together with the ship’s officers, and all the crew who refused to join them. Now she was a man-of-war in all but name, a hunter that could prey on anything except the largest Indiamen.

  ‘Run out the bow chasers,’ he ordered. ‘See if she goes faster with a slap on the arse.’

  ‘If she crowds on any more sail, she’ll lose her topmasts,’ said the mate beside him.

  Legrange smiled. ‘Exactly!’

  His men started loading the bow chasers; long thirty-two pounders mounted either side of the ship’s prow. The gunner fetched an iron brazier from below and lit the coals to heat shot. They wanted the prize and her cargo intact – but if she threatened to outrun them, Legrange would rather see her burned to the waterline than escape.

  ‘What about that one, Cap’n?’ asked the mate.

  Far off on the starboard quarter, another sail danced against the horizon. Legrange found her with his spyglass and she leaped into focus. She was a sloop; a lean, flush-decked vessel flying along under topsails and jibs. He could see her crew gathered at the rail, watching and pointing. One man was holding a telescope trained on the Fighting Cock. Probably shitting his breeches, thought Legrange, and thanking God the pirate had a richer prize to prey on; for the moment at least.

  He chuckled, and lowered the telescope. ‘We’ll finish our business with the Indiaman first. Then we’ll catch up with that sloop and see what trade she has on board for us. But she won’t trouble us for now.’

  Tom Courtney lowered his telescope. The pirate ship, with her black and re
d flags billowing from her mastheads, receded to a diminutive shape on the horizon.

  ‘The merchantman is piling on more sail,’ he observed. ‘She might outrun them yet.’

  Light flashed from the pirate’s bow. A second later, they heard the dull clap of cannon-fire roll across the water.

  ‘Still out of range,’ said the man standing beside Tom, as a plume of water rose a few cables back from the merchantman’s stern. He was taller than Tom, his shoulders bunched with muscle as he moved. A pattern of scars covered his black face with raised whorls and ridges, the ritual marks of the African tribe into which he had been born. He had known Tom since he was a small boy – and his father, Hal, before that. Yet his ebony skin betrayed not a wrinkle, and not a single grey hair showed on his shaved cranium.

  ‘Not for long, Aboli. She has at least a couple of knots on that fat sow.’

  ‘The merchant would have been wiser to surrender. We know what pirates do to those who resist them.’

  Tom glanced behind him. Two women sat under the awning on the foredeck, making no attempt to hide the fact they were listening to every word the men said.

  ‘I suppose we ought to leave the merchant to her fate,’ he said dubiously.

  Aboli knew what he was thinking. ‘Forty guns to our twelve,’ he warned. ‘And at least twice as many more men.’

  ‘It would be foolhardy to get involved.’

  One of the women on the foredeck stood and put her hands on her hips, her blue eyes glinting. She was not conventionally beautiful: her mouth was too wide, her chin too strong and her flawless skin had been tanned a golden brown by the tropical sun. But there was a vivid, living quality to her, a lithe energy in her body and intelligence in her face that had smitten Tom the first moment he laid eyes on her.

  ‘Don’t be a ninny, Tom Courtney,’ she declared. ‘You really aren’t going to leave those poor blighters to be murdered by pirates?’ She snatched the spyglass from Tom and put it to her eye. ‘I do believe there’s a woman on board. You know what will happen to her if the pirates take the ship.’

  Tom shared a glance with the man at the helm. ‘What do you think, Dorry?’

  Dorian Courtney frowned. The two men were brothers, though few would have guessed it. His skin had been tanned deep brown by years spent in the Arabian deserts. He wore a green turban wound about his red hair, and a pair of loose sailor’s trousers with a curved dagger stuck in the belt.

  ‘It doesn’t sit well with me either.’ He said it lightly, but they all knew the bitter experience that lay beneath his words. At the age of eleven, he had been captured by Arab pirates and sold into slavery. It had taken Tom ten years to find him again, ten years in which he had believed him dead. Meanwhile, Dorian had been adopted by a benevolent prince of Muscat, and become a warrior in his household. When Tom and Dorian finally met again, in the wilderness of East Africa, Tom had not even recognized him. They had come within inches of killing each other.

  ‘It will not be easy, Klebe,’ warned Aboli. Klebe was his nickname for Tom; it meant hawk in the language of his tribe. Aboli had his own reasons for hating slavers. Some years earlier, he had taken two wives from the Lozi tribe, Zete and Falla, who had born him six children. While Aboli was away on a trading expedition, Arab slavers had fallen on the village and captured its people. They had taken as slaves Zete and Falla and his two eldest sons, and killed all the infants. Four of Aboli’s baby sons and daughters had had their brains dashed out against a tree trunk, for they were too young to be worth taking on the forced march to the slave-trading ports on the East Coast.

  Aboli and Tom had hunted them across Africa, following the trail beyond exhaustion. When they overtook them, they freed Zete and Falla, with their two surviving sons, and took savage vengeance on the slave traders. The boys, Zama and Tula, were now grown almost to manhood, as imposing as their father though as yet without his ritual facial scarring. Tom knew they were desperate to earn the right to wear them.

  ‘That merchantman’s heavy laden,’ said Dorian, as if it had only just occurred to him. ‘That’s a good cargo to collect a salvage fee on.’

  Aboli was already priming his pistol. ‘You know what your father would have said.’

  ‘Do good to all men, but at the end remember to collect your fee.’ Tom laughed. ‘Nonetheless, I do not like going into battle with the ladies aboard.’

  Sarah had disappeared below decks. Now she reappeared, carrying a gold-hilted sword, with a blue sapphire sparkling in the pommel.

  ‘Are you going to wear this Tom Courtney, or must I do so myself?’ she demanded.

  The crash of another shot rolled across the ocean. This time, they saw the ball tear a piece of carving off the merchantman’s stern.

  ‘Good God, Mrs Courtney, I think the pirates would rather abandon all the gold of the Great Mughal’s treasure fleet than defy your wishes. What do you say, Yasmini?’ He addressed this to the lovely sloe-eyed Arabian girl standing behind Sarah. She was Dorian’s wife, dressed in a simple full length dress and white headscarf.

  ‘A good wife obeys her husband in all things,’ she said demurely. ‘I shall prepare my medicine chest, for no doubt it will be needed before you are finished.’

  Tom buckled on the blue sword – the Neptune sword. It had been his father’s, and his grandfather’s before that. But it had originally been presented to his great grandfather Charles Courtney by Sir Francis Drake after the sack of Rancheria on the Spanish Main. With that sword, Tom had been dubbed a Knight Nautonnier of the Temple of the Order of the Holy Grail, like his ancestors before him – and he had used it to send countless men to the deaths they so well deserved. It was made from the finest Toledo steel, and the supple weight of the blade was perfectly balanced by the star sapphire in the pommel.

  Tom drew the blade from its scabbard, and rejoiced in the way the sunlight danced off the gold inlay.

  ‘Load the guns, Aboli. Double-shot them with partridge.’ The small lead balls would spread out in a cloud to wreak havoc on all that stood in their way. ‘Mr Wilson, bring her down three points to windward.’

  The pirate’s bow chasers roared again. One ball went wide; the other tore off a piece of the stern carvings, throwing up a cloud of splinters. Warm blood rolled down Inchbird’s cheek from where one of them had pricked him.

  ‘They’re aiming for the masts.’ The pirate had altered course fractionally, angling herself so that the Dowager’s masts presented themselves all in a row, like ninepins.

  ‘That’s a difficult target from this distance,’ the mate demurred.

  As if to give him the lie, a crack sounded from above. All eyes turned upwards – just in time to see a tangle of wood and canvas plummeting towards them. Men threw themselves aside. Some were too slow. The mizzen topmast struck the helmsman and shattered his skull. The ship started paying off to leeward. The topsail settled over the man’s body like a shroud.

  ‘Cut it away,’ Inchbird shouted. ‘We must free the steering.’ Men ran with axes and started chopping at the shattered spars.

  Another shot drowned his words, and Inchbird staggered in the disrupted air as the cannon ball flew over the deck, a foot in front of his face. He could feel his ship slowing as she came off the wind, slewing around. Her hull shivered; sails cracked and ropes snapped.

  By the wheel, the crew had cut the sail free and were hauling it away. The canvas came away bright with the helmsman’s blood. Beneath it, the wheel lay in splinters where the spar had struck it. It would take hours to rig a replacement, and they did not have that time.

  Off the port beam, the pirate was closing fast, bearing off to come alongside. So close now, he could see the men gathered on her deck. Some brandished their cutlasses aloft; others carried long, wicked pikes.

  Inchbird gritted his teeth. ‘Stand by to repel boarders.’

  The Fighting Cock’s helmsman brought her alongside the Dowager. The men aloft reefed her sails, while the rest of the pirates massed at her side, balanced on h
er gunwale and clinging to her stays and shrouds. The ships knocked and rocked as their yardarms touched. Only a few feet of open water separated them now.

  Legrange leaped up onto the rail. This was almost too easy, he thought complacently. Looking down onto the merchant’s deck, he could see it was deserted. Her crew must be below, frantically trying to hide their valuables. A wasted effort: he’d soon have them screaming, begging to tell him where they’d hidden every last dollar.

  He raised the speaking trumpet. ‘Strike your colours and prepare to receive boarders.’

  His men jeered. Legrange ran his eye along the row of the merchant’s guns, and saw that all of them had been abandoned. They’d make a useful addition to the Cock’s arsenal. Or, more likely, he could refit the Dowager and add her to his flotilla. With two ships, all the oceans would be his. He grinned wolfishly at the thought.

  A flash of colour caught his eye: an orange glow, like sunlight gleaming on metal near the breech of one of the guns. He peered at it. It wasn’t sunlight. It was the flame of a burning slow-match worming its way into the touchhole. Quickly he scanned the row of cannons and his blood froze. Every gun was loaded and shotted, and aimed at him.

  ‘Get down,’ he bellowed. The unmanned guns crashed out a point-blank broadside, grape shot laced with carpenter’s nails that pulverized the bulwarks and cut down the front rank of his men in a chaos of blood and pulped human flesh. A cloud of splinters tore through the line of men standing close behind and threw them to the deck. The awful silence that followed was immediately shattered as the Dowager’s crew poured out of her hatches and companionway armed with muskets and pistols, clambering up on her quarterdeck to fire down on the survivors of the carnage. As quickly as the pirates clambered to their feet, musket balls knocked them down again. The Dowager’s crew cheered as the ships began to drift apart.

  Legrange’s prize was slipping away. But the Fighting Cock had carried over two hundred men; the Dowager, even at full strength, had fewer than a hundred. For all the losses the pirates had suffered, they still outnumbered their prey. All they needed was courage.