Letter of Marque

1651, The commonwealth of England is gripped with war against many of the worlds greatest nations. With a scattered parliament and many colonies across the span of the earth, the defence of the seas lies with those referred to as "Privateers". With a letter of marque, Edmund Randolph sets out across the Atlantic with a small team of experienced sailors, hoping to secure his chances of a victory against the French, Dutch and Spanish pirates which plague the Americas. But a different cause grips him from inside, a chance to clear up a history which has his family torn apart.

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2. Out of port

   The gentle breeze of the harbour drew the ship out into the bay with a small nudge, with the occasional jolt of wind momentarily increasing the speed.
   Edmund climbed the wooden stairs to the quarter deck and nodded to Thompson as he gently swayed the wheel to and fro.
   “Where to?” Charles asked. Edmund contorted his face in confusion, “Which town of the Azores, I mean.”
   “Praia da Vitória,” Edmund replied with confidence, “I believe it’s on the island of Terceira.”
   “Very well…” Charles nodded again before Edmund turned his attention back to the many sloops and brigs arriving and departing to and from the port.
   It was only a dozen years prior that Edmund’s father – William - made his way to the Americas for the last time, wishing his family well. Adding to that, it was also only two years when his brother – Nicholas – set off from the same port and made for the Barbary Coast.
  

   Edmund dwindled at the thought of his father. So many letters saying how well he was getting on, which ships he’d plundered and where he’d been. And then, three days after sending his last letter, detailing how he was to be stationed near Jamestown for the week, he was decimated by the fellow English frigate, the HMS Glorious. Friendly fire was the verdict.
   But it couldn’t happen. It was physically impossible. Even in a bare fight, or caught off-guard, the HMS Greyhound – Williams state-of-the-art eighty-gun third-rate-ship-of-the-line, could easily defeat a mere frigate such as the Glorious.
   And that was why Edmund was suspicious. According to records, William’s Vice-Admiral, Nathaniel Fynche, was on duty at the time. So, even if taken by surprise, the crew should have been called to action, or at least to abandon ship.
   And then, to top it all off, only three people – out of five-hundred – made it out alive: two meagre mates, and Nathaniel Fynche. Why no more prisoners were taken, why they were attacked in the first place and why the serving Admiral even abandoned ship before consulting the crew was still a mystery.
   But Edmund had a hunch, and a very strong hunch it was too. Nathaniel and William – during their years as high-up seaman – contested endlessly to become Admiral of the Glorious and her fleet. So, as William rose to the position for his great service, Nathaniel – as detailed in William’s letters – was cross, very cross indeed.
   It was a long shot, but, if Edmund could get to Nathaniel and find the information he needed, his mind, as well as his family’s, could be put to rest. Either that or Nathaniel would have his life ended abruptly.
   The Isle of Wight was a particularly tricky obstacle to navigate past. Low tide, small waterway and light fog made almost deadly when faced with an oncoming vessel, but Charles – with many years’ experience – navigated it well and with precise care.
   It was Hurst Castle that marked the end of the bottleneck bay, and Edmund watched as the glamour of a structure passed, many a redcoat patrolling the high defensive walls. For only ten years prior, Charles I was imprisoned here before trial and execution at Windsor, and Edmund had heard many stories about it.
   Colonel Thomas Eyre, commander of the castle was indeed a very good friend of his uncle Oliver, and so had quite a reputable name to the family.
   Edmund leaned on the bulwark as he gazed at the structure before the fog began to engulf it, the wind increased, and the coastal settlement of Swanage emerged.
  

   Swanage was a favoured destination of Edmunds mother. Many weeks had been spent wandering around the fine old town; browsing the wares and watching the ships roll in and out of the sea.
   The ship cruised past the seaside town and soon nothing but sandy beaches were visible from the ship.
   “We’ll be coasting until we reach Dartmouth. It’s supposedly quite rough on the waves, so we’d best play it safe for the moment.”
   Edmund rotated to give a quick nod to Charles, before turning back to the unprecedented landscape of the South-West.
   One by one, the coastal towns and ports waved goodbye to the drifting ship: Weymouth, Lyme Regis, Torquay, before finally, Dartmouth came into view. Time had passed considerably, as Edmunds mind became ravaged with the thoughts of his father, and the sun now hung high in the sky.
  

   Dartmouth was a place Edmund had heard much about. His grandfather would repeatedly tell the story of the infamous Madre de Deus, a Portuguese treasure ship captured by the English in the Azores which was docked at the port in 1592. His grandfather was among the men sent to retrieve the crowns share of the treasure. Along with the renowned Sir Walter Raleigh, they arrived only to find that cutpurses and thieves had stolen much of the half-a-million pounds worth of treasure.
   But, alas, Edmund could not revel over the joys of England, for soon he would be enjoying the company and culture The Azores and The Americas had to offer.
   The ship left the coast, and headed through the final stretch of the English Channel, the waters becoming coarser and the whitecaps higher.
   “Charles,” The captain turned once more, removing his hands from the bulwark and placing them in his pockets, “How about a drink?”
   Charles’ eyes flared with happiness. Being offered a drink – or anything for that manner – by the captain was something of friendship, of rapport, and certainly not something to reject.
   “Of course, Captain.” He replied with ease, his voice showing all signs of content.
   “Gather James and Hans, and join me in the cabin.” Edmund walked down the wooden stairs, glancing back to receive a nod and salute from Thompson once more, before disappearing through the doors.
   The light now reflected off the waves and streamed through the tall windows, casting a serene setting throughout the cabin.
   He scanned the racks of wine: Riesling, Sauvignon, and Pinot Noir, before coming to the beverage of choice: Merlot.
   He slipped the bottle – green and slightly dusted – from its allotted space in the rack, and walked towards the table. His boots clunked on the small step before he strolled around the table once more to his favoured rear seat.
   He placed the bottle onto the timber surface, before scooting the chair around to face the waves, gently bobbing behind the vessel, as England was no more to be seen.
   Four goblets, each aged and slightly worn, were arranged by the seats, and a pack of cards – A French deck given to Edmund by his father – sat stacked next to the candle in the centre.
   The left door swung open once more, and for a brief momently the gentle creaking of the bow was interjected by the hauling of ropes, scrubbing of decks, and hoisting of sails.
   Charles stood, attentive in his full outfit, buttressing himself against the door to allow the other two men to enter with ease.
   James, as always, walked slowly and, under the shadow of his large tricorne, gazed in awe at the finery that the cabin had that wasn’t available to those down below.
   And then there was Hans. Hans Klietzel was the boatswain of the vessel. This required him to check that all equipment was in check ready for the open seas, and he did it with pride. He claimed to have lived his early life in Cuxhaven, Lower Saxony, before coming to Southampton. As with anyone, he could have fabricated his story, yet, as a coin rings true gold, something about his words sounded factual.
   “Ah,” Edmund called from the opposite side of the cabin, “My good friends. Please, sit down.”
   The men all took their seats around the table, and Edmund poured the maroon liquid into the cups and shared them around, as clouds began to obscure the sun from infiltrating the windows.

   “Gentlemen.” His voice was interjected by the creaking of the wood and the ringing of the ships bell, signalling the transition between forenoon watch and afternoon watch.

 

   To explain, the Oceans Knave had a primitive watch system, in which teams of Watchmen would patrol the lower decks in order to ruse any mutinies, stop stealing and otherwise sustain the trust in the crew.

   The bell itself – kept from the days the ship was titled HMS Topaz – was bronze and gave a beautiful ring when hit by the boatswain.

 

   “I would like to take this time to propose a toast, to the Oceans Knave. Such a stunning restoration, and a fine-looking crew.” He rose his glass into the air, “To the Oceans Knave.”

   The men joined in raising their glasses to the air, above the centre candle, and rejoiced in harmony.

   “To the Ocean’s Knave!” And they all drank.

 

   Edmund noticed as James took only a small sip from the cup, before placing it back on the table, and crossing his arms in coldness high up his chest.

   “Cold, James?” He asked, still holding the cup in his hands.

   “Yes…Sir.” James peered from under his hat, visibly shivering as the others finished their beverages.

 

   Edmund replenished the drinks of Hans and Charles, and turned his attention to other matters, those that were more important.

   “I wanted to take this time to talk about the upcoming voyage.”

   “Aye?” Charles replied instantly, “About that, Sir. What is it we are to do in the Azores?”

   Edmund took another sip of the wine, “Replace the stocks, my dear friend.” He chuckled, “The grog needs filling, and food needs replacing.” He tapped his temple several times, “We have to think one step ahead to defeat the bastard French.”

   “Of course, Sir.” Charles replied, Hans and James nodding in accord.

   “How fare the crew?” Edmund asked on a slightly different subject.

   “Needless to say,” Charles once again was quick with a reply, “They are fine, both in mind and body.”

   “No qualms about payment?”

   “None at all, Sir. As long as they’re paid, they’ll be happy.”

   “Good.” Edmund took yet another gulp of the merlot, and contemplated a game of spoil five, but after seeing James shaking even more, decided against it.”

   “James,” He turned his head, “You may leave for your cabin if you do so wish. Get some sleep, warm yourself up.”

   James’ eyes were dull and lost of eagerness, as a winter’s night after sunset, and his arms were still crossed.

   He rose from his seat, and mumbled a quiet “Thank you, Sir.” Before trapesing to the door, and disappearing among the seamen and riggers which crowded the main deck.

   “Poor boy…” Edmund mumbled to himself, but Charles and Hans both heard him and agreed with an audible tone.

   “Right,” Edmund also took himself from his seat, and surveyed the white foam produced by the boat trailing behind him, as England was now completely below the horizon, and the fog had begun to disperse completely, “I think it’s time to man the ship.”

 

   “Captain on Deck!” Charles hollered as Edmund made his way up the right staircase, holding the balustrade with his hand. He took a quick survey of the immediate area before taking the wheel from Walter, temporarily in charge while both Charles and Edmund were unavailable.

   Both Hans and Charles joined him, walking about the deck, watching as Merchant sloops and other civilian and military vessels trundled past, the cursed waves of the Atlantic tamed by the experience of the captains.

   “You know Sir?” Hans stood to the left of Edmund, “We need to give you a nickname.”

   “Really?” The captain kept his hands on both sides of the wheel, concentrating on the passage ahead while still listening to his loyal Boatswain.

   “Of course!” Hans seemed delighted that Edmund had not directly refused such a proposal, and so continued, “You’re voyaging into the world of pirates, thieves and generals. You have to make a name for yourself.”

   “It’s not about making a name for myself that I’m going for,” Edmund replied, suddenly realising he hadn’t explicitly told his plans about journeying to the East America as well, “…It’s to teach these bloody French a lesson.”

   He was happy that Hans was already thinking of a name rather than listening to him. Any other time and it would have been a stern word, but he was in a world of his own.

   “…what about The Rebel…no, that won’t work…The Red Knight…no, no, no…ah-ha!” He placed his hand on Edmund left shoulder, sending a rush of adrenaline down his spine, “My good Sir, you are now Edmund “The Raven” Randolph.”

   Edmund was pleased with the result. It could have been many times worse, but this was not only plausible, but it actually worked. Hans now seemed like the sort of man with a vivid imagination, and certainly continued to show it.

   Edmund “The Raven” Randolph, he thought to himself, Yes…I could get used to that.

   He couldn’t begin to imagine the fear that it could inflict on his foes. There was never an egotistical aspect around him, yet he loved such a name, a characteristic title, so to speak.

   “Hans?” Edmund turned to the boatswain, resting over the bulwark, watching the whitecaps sweep past the port-side.

   “Sir?” He didn’t move from his position, just swivelled his head to meet Edmund’s gaze.

   “A job, if you will?” The captain replied. Hans stood up, effervescent as ever, and walked towards Edmund, eyes apprehensive, anticipating the orders of his superior. “Would you be so kind as to tally up the armaments on the vessel? We may need to stock up at the Azores.”

 

   Hans smiled, and not saying a word, nodded his head before descending the left stairs, and disappearing below the hatch next to the mizzenmast.

   Being the captain of the ship was solitary to say the least. The mates on the main deck would talk to each other, pass the time quickly, but having to concentrate on the steering of the boat meant trying to ignore everything around them. Charles controlled the sails, telling the men when to loosen and tighten them.

   To be honest, that was part of the reason that Hans had been ordered down below deck. Edmund knew that Charles wouldn’t bother him, he knew what it was like to steer the ship, yet Hans didn’t.

 

“I've been a wild rover for many's the year,

and I spent all me money on whisky and beer.

And now I'm returning with gold in great store,

and I never will play the wild rover no more.”

 

   Edmund’s voice alerted the crew at once, bellowing from atop the poop deck. Charles turned in surprise. He never knew Edmund liked singing, nor had a good enough voice to go along with it. Then again, there was much that he didn’t know about his captain.

   Edmund tried to keep quiet enough as to not alert the crew, but this was met with little success. Charles moved to stand beside his right and, as well as the crew, began to join in the chorus:

 

“And it's no, nay, never! No, nay, never, no more,

will I play the wild rover. No never no more!”

 

   The pair by the wheel sung two very different tones, and along with those on the main deck, created a perfect harmony. The voices below were somewhat tenored by the aged wood which separated them.

   Edmund’s face turned to meet Charles with a measuring gaze, but instead of ordering the crew to quieten down, he just smiled, giving a somewhat satisfied impression.

 

  

    Now well out of the English Channel and into the Atlantic, the frigate sliced through the ocean as molten gold and opal. Ships, like sheeted phantoms coming and going, their occupants all the colours known to man Genovese, German, Russian, the men spoke in untranslatable language when in audible distance, and did but wave to the crew of the Oceans Knave.

   The sea was as untroubled as the turquoise vault which it reflected, crest appearing at their utmost lowest.

   Calm and concise, Edmund knew they were making good time, and would maybe make it to the Azores quicker than most would have expected.

   Three days was the estimate according to James, and he was a skilled navigator. But now, with a steady pace, and no storms or hassle, they might even make it in two.

 

   “Sir?” A mate crawled from the hatch, and bellowed loudly to Edmund, who immediately looked to him.

   It was a man he only knew as Tyler, and that was his surname. A tall slender man with brown locks, he swept them apart to see the captain fully. His shirt was ripped and snagged, and his tricorne slightly unshapen.

   “What is it, Tyler?” Edmund enquired.

   Tyler kept the hatch askew with his right arm, “We have trouble with the crew.”

   “What seems to be troubling them?”

   “I’m not sure, Sir.” Tyler seemed genuinely worried, “They are refusing to work.”

   “Take the wheel.” Edmund said once again to Charles, who obeyed almost instinctively, “It looks like this is a job that can be solved diplomatically.”

 

   Below deck, the ship creaked like the sounds were the dead souls themselves, underwater and submerged. Smoke form the newly invented tobacco pipes infused the air, causing Edmunds reflexes to cough instinctively.

   The men, shunting gunpowder around the stores and polishing the cannons for that all-important meeting in Newfoundland, were shocked at the sight of the captain below deck. They had heard Flint – the one-eyed Irishman – complain about being ordered by Edmund, and had heard his plans for mutiny, and feared him for it.

   And there he stood, with two of his so-called henchmen, leaning against a stack of boxes in the front gallery, but he didn’t respond to the presence of his superior like the others did.

   He just stood there, crossing his arms as the captain strode towards him.

   “What seems to be the problem?” Edmund extended his arm and propped himself against the doorway, as Flint finally turned to him.

   “The problem…” Flint stood up, hardy and independent, “…is you.”

   His accomplices stepped back towards the wooden wall behind them, indicating they certainly knew how this was to play out.

   “I fail to see the complication.”

   “Listen.” Flint boldly strode over to the captain, angry and tempered, whereas Edmund kept calm, “I don’t take kindly to bein’ ordered around. You ‘ear.”

   He stood no taller than the captain, and was the subject of no intimidation. Instead, Edmund’s left fist began to clench, as he still leaned over onto the partition.

   “If you wish so badly to make it to the America, I suggest you do as every other man aboard this vessel does, and work to earn the passage.”

   Flint became agitated instantly. Now a couple more mates had gathered around Edmunds hindmost, ready for the fight to commence. But the captain still remained calm, whereas Flint’s face became reddened, even under the amber glow of the lamps.

   “Damn you, blaggard!” He cursed, standing back, as the seamen saw Edmund’s muscles tense, “You are n’more than a poxed dog, you are no captain.”

   “Listen.” Edmund grabbed Flint’s throat, and fear glinted in the Irishman’s eye as he became pushed up against the timber wall, the crew gathering ever so closer, “I give no quarter to traitors. You will work for your passage, or you’ll be dancing the hempen jig upon the yardarms. Is that clear?”

   He let go of the man with a quick splay of the hand, momentarily knocking Flint of balance, before he squared up as Edmund began to walk away.

   “No.” The crew gasped at such a declination of the man, “I will work for no man.”

   He must be loaded to the gunwall, came a short murmur from the rear of the horde of men.

 

   Edmund turned, fire raging in his eyes. His fist swung with such force, Flint was knocked cold before his face had time to hit the side wall. The limp figure leant against a crate of arms, his legs splayed out across the floor as Edmund turned to the two henchmen.

   “Pick him up, lads,” He panted, angered, “and take him to Lyle, unless you wish to join him.”

   The men nodded without saying a word, and picked the lifeless body from the floor, and waddled through the crowd towards the rear of the frigate.

   The crowd, half shocked and half impressed, did but resumes their duties when the captain turned to exit the room, gobbling sea-talk towards one another and nodding to him as he left.

   He attempted to wipe the blood from his knuckles, spilt when he struck the man’s jaw, yet it hastened to shift.

   As he ascended the stairs to the deck, the harmony of the crew became louder than the blood pumping around his veins, and it became apparent that they were now singing a different song:

 

“In Amsterdam there lived a maid

Mark you well what I do say!

In Amsterdam there lives a maid,

And this fair maid my trust betrayed..

 

I'll go no more a rovin, with you fair maid.

A roving, A roving, since roving's been my ru-i-in,

I'll go no more a roving, with you fair maid.”

 

   He took a long gaze over the port of the ship: the unprecedented Atlantic Ocean awaited him, but, like Flint, there would still be many an obstacle to overcome.

   Walking with nobility to mask the episode of rage which had just occurred, he listened with intensity to the chants which the swabs sung, yet could still hear the hushed whispers of the crew.

   “Y’hear, the cap’n just nearly quartered Flint?” One man, resting against the bulwark, said to his counterpart, latent in the shade on his side.

   “That bilge will be measured fer his chains if he’s not careful.” The other man clasped his hands under his head and began to nap seamlessly.

 

   Edmund didn’t respond to the voices. These people were not like Flint. They may be laying down by the wall now, he thought, but when the time comes, they will not shirk their duties, and he carried on towards the aft deck.

   Charles saluted to the captain as he turned to the wheel, accompanied by Hans, who had completed his task of totalling the munitions.

   “In regards to able-bodied crew,” Hans sidled up to Edmunds side, parchment in hand, as the captain handled the wheel to and fro, “We’re twelve muskets, four axes, three hooks and eight pistols short. Apart from that, we’re ready for battle.”

   “Very good, Hans.” He smiled, the German returning a gleam of completed work, “We’re making good time, we may even dock at the Azores by tomorrows dusk.”

   “Ha!” Charles interjected with a hearty laugh pointing to the dark clouds emerging from the horizon, “With that storm a-comin’, we’ll be damned to the depths before we see land.”

   “Nonsense, Charles!” Edmund retorted with a returning chuckle, “This vessel can outrun such a mere storm. Haul out the sails, boys!”

   The ship bloomed its white sails at the order, and raced across the surface of the ocean, as if a gliding mist through the sky.

 

   A couple of hours passed with no lively activity. Patrols came and gave their usual all clear to the captain, who dismissed them and assigned another group of buckos to search the lower tiers.

   The storm seemed to forever loom over the horizon, and the misty grey rain underneath still drizzled from its base. Edmund knew that it would last, and would not be a pleasant ride, but was needed to be traversed to arrive safely at the Azores.

   “Call in the crew from below!” He shouted from behind the wheel, before handing it to Charles, “It’s time for a toast.”

   “All men on deck!” The voices bellowed down through the hatches, into the lower levels, “Smartly now!”

 

   By the time every man aboard had gathered about the aft-most hatch, Edmund had descended the stairs and spoke as Francisco lumbered the barrels of grog up the stairs with another crew members.

   “Gentlemen,” He began, “It has been no more than a day, and we have travelled a little less than halfway, and already has someone become injured for shirking their duties.

   Let this be a lesson to all those who wish to undermine the authority of the higher ranks. All those who disobey orders when commanded, will be meeting the ropes end in no time.

   Once we dock at the Azores, we will be trading all our grog for Rum, which will be distributed to every mate from then on.”

   The crew cheered with great happiness, shouting to one another in exclamation of this wonderful announcement.

   “Francisco, would you be as kind as to share the grog?”

   “I know what this calls for,” Shouted a sailor from amongst the masses as the Spaniard began distributing the liquid in the sailors’ cups, “A song of celebration!”

   “Please, no.” Edmund pleaded, “I am to retire for the night in a moment, so please, no chants.”

   “Not a chant, Sir.” The man pulled a fiddle from its resting place on the crate by the mizzenmast, “We shall play, for you dear Sir. I have a fiddle, James has his guitar, and William has the flute.”

   The men shuffled to sit on a few crates by the bowsprit, and began to strum a few test notes, before the leader shouted across the crashing of the waves:

   “How ‘bout The Trooper and the Maid? A ‘rum old bothy ballad!”

   And so, this time with the addition of music, the singer carolled his heart out to a tune Edmund knew very well:

 

“A trooper lad came here last night,

With riding he was weary,

A trooper lad came here last night,

When the moon shone bright and clearly.

 

Bonny lassie, will you lie with me,

Hey bonny lassie, I'll lie near you,

I'll gar all your ribbons reel,

Bonny lassie, ere I leave you.”

 

   He relaxed his weary body against the bulwark, sloping to rest his legs on the deck, and, his back propped up against the rampart, became engulfed in all senses around him.

   He listened to the old tune. He remembered visiting his grandfather’s bothy – an old cottage he used as a refuge in the Cheviot Hills. He would spend the week tending to the sheep which moved like white waves over the knolls.

   The fire blazed as Edmund sat in the rocking chair opposite it, as the old man told him one of many stories. Maybe the anecdote about the angry Frenchman, or the drunkard. Whatever it was, Edmund would listen in content.

 

   But the fire was imaginary, and the rocking chair was simply the swaying of the vessel over the ever-increasing waves as the clouds began to close in on the little ship. Too long had he illusioned this, he felt suddenly cold, as if the fire had been extinguished and a cold gust had rattled through the fantasy house that was his soul.

   “Right…” Edmund pulled himself to his feet, like a drunkard in the street, tired and weary, “I shall be off to bed.” He saluted to singer, still blaring out the words to a now unacquainted melody. He received a salute in return, as did he get from Charles when he did the same, and walked through the door of the cabin.

 

   The lamps were lit as the sun finally dipped below the silver horizon, and swung from side to side.

   Edmund, weary and tired, slipped off his suede boots and placed them next to the bed, before removing his greatcoat.

   Placing it over the footboard, he did the same with his maroon scarf and sash – both of which were made by his mother for him.

   Still in his waistcoat, shirt and breeches, he slowly clambered into the bed, as he did in the tavern some few hours prior, and pulled the pillow to rest his head on.

   He turned on his back, and watched with intent as the tapers wavered with the motion of the ship, like fireflies in the night, and he slowly drifted off into a deep sleep.

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