Admiral Sir Robert Courtney stood on the deck of his ﬂag-ship, the Nestor, and felt the huge Cape rollers surge under the hull, the turbulence of cold Atlantic water meeting the heat of Africa. His body moved easily with the motion. He had been at sea since he was seventeen years old, starting as a common forecastle hand. Now he was a vice admiral of the Red, a knight of the realm, darling of the British press, and curse of any French captain unlucky enough to cross his path. He had accomplished a lot in the last thirty years.
‘It seems like yesterday when we started out together,’ said the man beside him, reading Rob’s thoughts as true as a compass. Angus MacNeil was a barrel-chested Scotsman who had sailed with Rob on his ﬁrst voyage in the navy, and somehow contrived to follow him aboard every vessel he’d served on since. They had saved each other’s lives more times than either man could remember.
Rob leaned on the rail, half listening as he stared out at the great ﬂat-topped bulk of Table Mountain looming above the bay. He could almost smell its scent, though with the stiff onshore breeze he knew he must be imagining it. Africa was where he had been born, where he had lived all his youth until dreams of big ships and the promise of adventure lured him away. Now, nearly ﬁfty, he felt a powerful urge to return, as if the dust of the continent had lodged in his bones and was at last beginning to stir. He had lobbied the Admiralty for this command for months. Now he was almost home.
But the Lords of the Admiralty had not sent him halfway across the world for shore leave. He had work to do. He put the telescope to his one good eye and swept it over the bay with a practised motion until he found the fort. Its white walls sparkled in the sunlight, its ﬁve corners thrust outward like spear points.
‘My great-great-grandfather helped build those walls,’ said Rob. He searched out the open parade ground on the shore below the castle walls. ‘And his father was executed there by the Dutch.’
‘Then you’ve a debt to pay,’ said Angus. He swept his arm across the horizon, where the full line of Rob’s ﬂeet spread over nearly ten miles of ocean: four ships of the line, two frigates and a dozen transports, with several thousand Highland troops quartered aboard. ‘And the men to give it back to Holland with interest.’
‘It is not Holland anymore. It is the Batavian Republic,’ Rob reproved him.
The Batavian Republic had been formed after the downfall of the old Dutch Republic, when French revolutionary forces intervened in 1795.
Angus spat over the side. ‘A turd by any other name. What’s the matter about all this change?’
The world had been transformed out of all recognition since Rob ﬁrst emerged from his isolated childhood in the African bush. He and Angus had cut their teeth ﬁghting American revolutionaries, but that had been the prologue for the greater contest that had erupted ten years later, with the French revolution. First France had been sucked into the maelstrom, then Europe, and ﬁnally the world. For a time, it had looked as though France might drown in the bloodbath the revolution had unleashed. But as her cause looked lost, a charismatic soldier named Bonaparte had emerged from the chaos to redeem his country. In less than ten years, he had risen from cadet to general. In another ﬁve years, he was dictator. And ﬁve years after that, he had crowned himself emperor. Now, there was not a corner of the globe where France and Britain did not ﬁght for mastery.
That was why Rob was here. Cape Town was the key to the East, to the new British empire rising in India. Holland held the Cape, but the country had been overthrown. The Batavian Republic was a vassal state of France, with a chokehold on Britain’s most vital trade artery. And so the Cape had to be captured.
Rob felt a touch on his arm – lighter than the breeze that plucked at his sleeves, but he knew it at once with a joy that had not dimmed in all these years. His wife, Phoebe, had come up beside him. He slipped an arm around her waist and hugged her to him.
Many things had changed, but not his love for her, or her looks. Even when he met her, a teenage slave abused on an American plantation, she had had a calm self-possession beyond her years. Despite the terrible suffering endured at the hands of cruel slave masters all those years ago, age had made her more beautiful, a more perfect version of the young woman she had been. Her almond eyes were deep with love and wisdom; her soft face was kindness itself, while her golden-brown skin bore no trace of the storms she had weathered.
Since Rob married Phoebe, they had not spent a night apart. The Admiralty frowned on ofﬁcers bringing their wives aboard ships; sailors swore it brought bad luck. None of it swayed Rob. The war had kept him at sea almost continuously. If he had left her behind, he would hardly have seen her for three months in ten years. Life ashore was hard enough for any sailor’s wife; for Phoebe, living in a different country and with a different skin, it would have been intolerable.
Whatever people might think, Rob’s extraordinary run of victories had quieted both punctilious admirals and superstitious sailors. He had become known as a lucky captain, and then a lucky admiral; his ships were never short of volunteers. And in the unique world of seamen, her race was irrelevant. Ships’ crews were made up of men from every country that had a coast: Scots, Irish, Cornishmen, Africans, Indian lascars, Chinamen, and stout men with strange tattoos from the islands of the South Seas. Any-where in the world that British ships called, men came aboard and entered the Royal Navy’s bloodstream. Many men volunteered, eager for the pay, board and the chance to travel to exotic lands, but those who were press-ganged would arrive with nothing but the clothes they were wearing, and sporting a bruise or two. Rob knew how brutal the experience could be – he had been forced into service many moons ago, and understood the men’s fears.
Now the crews loved Phoebe. She was their talisman, their Madonna and their mother. If Rob had tried to leave her ashore, they would have mutinied.
Phoebe shivered in his embrace. Cape Town was not a happy memory for her.
‘The last time I was here, it was in the hold of a slave ship.’
‘Now you are Lady Courtney. And soon, slave ships will be a thing of the past. The Saints are planning a new bill to abolish the trade, and they are conﬁdent that this year at last they have the votes to pass it.’
‘The Saints’ was the nickname for a group of Members of Parliament who had spent twenty years ﬁghting against slavery. Many of them were Rob’s friends, and he had been their enthusiastic champion. Of the considerable fortune in prize money he had amassed during his career, much of it had been dedicated to supporting their cause.
‘Imagine if we could turn our guns on those slavers.’
‘The French abolished slavery more than ten years ago,’ said Phoebe.
‘Until Bonaparte brought it back,’ Rob reminded her. ‘Which is why – among many other reasons – it will give me great pleasure to seize Cape Town from him.’
Phoebe studied the gleaming fort. ‘It looks heavily fortiﬁed and strongly built.’ Having been in so many battles, she had developed a captain’s eye for tactics. ‘Will you be able to manoeuvre the ship close enough to shore for it to be in range of your guns?’
Rob kissed her. ‘Your assessment is astute. We cannot assault the castle directly. Fortunately, I have a plan.’
He sought out his ﬂag lieutenant, a terrier-like Welshman named Jones.
‘My compliments to the captain. Ask him to prepare my launch.’
Jones saluted. Phoebe arched her eyebrows.
‘I hope you are not planning anything rash?’
‘As you rightly observed, I cannot get close enough to the shore
in the ﬂagship. I am transferring my ﬂag aboard the Valiant.’
‘You are an admiral,’ Phoebe said, a note of concern in her voice. ‘Your job is to let younger men ﬁght the battles, and win the glory.’
Rob smiled. ‘I need to be present to tell them how much better I would have done it at their age. Besides, you know what the Valiant’s captain is like. Impetuous, headstrong and insubordinate. Who knows what he would do without a ﬁrm hand on his shoulder?’
‘He takes after his father,’ said Phoebe.
‘I think that is his mother’s side.’
She let go of her hold on him.
‘If I told you to be careful, would it make any difference?’ ‘If I said I will, would you believe me?’
Rob surveyed the landscape through a telescope as he sat with Angus in the rear of the launch approaching the sloop Valiant. Phoebe had been right: a direct assault on the castle would have been an invitation to disaster. They needed to ﬁnd a different landing place. For a week, Rob’s ships had been making feints close to shore, testing the defences and leaving the Dutch guessing where the ﬁnal assault would come. He knew from his intelligence that the Dutch had over three hundred guns mounted on shore batteries along the coast. He needed to land almost ten thousand men, and he would not send them ashore to be slaughtered.
Rob had decided on landing on a site at Losperd’s Bay, some sixteen miles east of Cape Town. It was far enough from the castle that the Dutch could not reinforce the area quickly, and unprotected by any permanent batteries. The drawbacks were the strong current that swept the beach, and the high sand dunes screening the interior. If the Dutch brought up troops, the dunes would provide a natural defensive rampart. But as best Rob could tell, the place was deserted.
He felt the familiar heat rising in his veins at the prospect of action. He knew it was unbecoming for an admiral. Phoebe was right about that, too. He should stay back, directing the ﬂeet from a safe distance. But some impulse forced him onwards, his rational, strategic judgement giving way to the promise of the thrills he used to experience in his youth: the camaraderie, the shared purpose, the knife-edge between life and death. For a long time he had been missing the visceral excitement of battle, and he knew he had to answer its siren call. And he could never ask his men to face danger that he would not.
The boat came alongside the sloop. For another admiral, a different captain might have rigged a boatswain’s chair to hoist the ﬂ ag ofﬁcer aboard safely. But Rob would rather fall in the sea and drown than be lugged aboard like livestock, and the Valiant’s captain knew that better than anyone.
The red vice admiral’s pennant broke out from the masthead as Rob came on deck. The captain saluted crisply. Then, forgetting decorum, he stepped forward and embraced Rob warmly.
‘It is good to see you, Adam.’
Rob gripped his son’s shoulders and looked into his eyes – the same green eyes that had ﬂickered open in Rob’s arms as he held a newborn baby on a stormy sea in the Bay of Biscay. He had grown into a ﬁ ne young man, Rob thought. He was a true mix of his parents, with his mother’s irrepressibly curly hair, his father’s ready grin, and a light-brown complexion halfway between the two.
Though their ships had been separated by only a few miles of ocean, they had barely seen each other on the voyage out. Before that, years would pass between their reunions. From the moment Adam took his warrant as midshipman, Rob had insisted he serve under other captains.
‘My son must earn his own place in the world, as I did,’ he had told Phoebe.
He had known the charge of nepotism would hang over Adam’s career, however it progressed. He did not want to add any substance to it.
But Rob had read avidly every letter from Adam. He had scoured the Naval Gazette for reports of his son, delighting in news of his exploits. He had watched with pride as Adam grew from a callow midshipman to a dashing lieutenant, and now a commander with his ﬁrst ship. Only now had Rob used his rank to bring Adam into his squadron.
It was the right time. Adam had African blood in him on both sides, but had not set foot on the continent in nearly twenty years. He should return to his ancestral home, to see his grandfather, his aunt and uncles and cousins.
But ﬁrst they had a battle to win.
‘Is everything prepared?’ Rob asked.
Adam frowned. ‘General Beresford was unable to land his troops today because of the gale. He decided to move north with the bulk of his forces and land at Saldanha Bay.’
‘But that is a hundred miles away,’ Rob protested. ‘A hundred miles they will have to march back, across a waterless desert.’
‘He did not consider he could make a safe landing here.’
As if to underscore Adam’s words, a wave slapped against the side of the ship, throwing a spume of spray over both men. At the east end of the bay, Rob could see the sea foaming around the rocks of the razor-sharp reef that protruded from the beach.
‘Our men would be dashed to pieces in this,’ Rob conceded. ‘Scipio promises me that tomorrow the wind will change.’
Adam said it lightly, but there was a gleam of intent in his eye.
Scipio was another man Rob had helped free from slavery on the same plantation as Phoebe. With Angus and Phoebe, Scipio had stayed with Rob throughout his career, until Adam moved to his ﬁrst ship. Then Scipio had joined Adam, and served wherever he was posted ever since.
‘If Scipio says the weather will change, then it assuredly will.’ Scipio had grown up on the great river deltas of West Africa. Later, he had served as a boatman in the mazy coastal swamps of South Carolina. He could sniff out wind and weather three days away.
‘Will you bring the army back?’
Rob shook his head. ‘General Beresford is in command of the army. I have to defer to him.’
‘Now you sound like a desk-bound admiral,’ Adam chided him. ‘Waging war with protocol and pieces of paper.’
‘I am an admiral,’ said Rob, a touch of petulance in his voice. In truth, he was as eager as Adam for a quick, decisive strike. ‘It is a great deal more complicated being an admiral than a sloop captain, haring over the horizon and engaging every ship you see.’
‘Then I hope I never get promoted.’
Rob was about to give a sharp retort. Then he remembered himself and smiled.
‘I believe I said the same when I was your age. But . . . circumstances change.’ He sighed. ‘Everything catches up with us in the end.’
‘Then let us drink to good times and good friends, and pray I never get old like you.’
‘An excellent idea.’
Adam led Rob aft towards his cabin.
‘You remember that French schooner I captured off Marseilles? Her captain was fond of claret. He kept a hold full of the ﬁnest Margaux wine. I managed to save a few bottles.’
‘I will gladly swap them for a bottle of the ﬁ ne cognac I took from Admiral Gaspard when I accepted his surrender.’
Deep in conversation, father and son headed below. Two men watched them with deep affection. One was Angus, who had come aboard with Rob. The other, a strongly built African with ritual scars on his face and his hair tightly cropped, was Scipio.
‘It is good to be back together,’ said Scipio.
‘It is that’ answered Angus.
The two men were ﬁrm friends, united by their love for the sea, and for the Courtneys.
Scipio nodded towards the shore. Shadows were lengthening over the dunes, hiding whatever might lurk in their hollows.
‘It will be hot work tomorrow.’
‘If the weather changes.’
‘It will change. And he will attack.’
‘A rare day, seeing the admiral and his bairn in the same ﬁght.’ It was another – unspoken – reason why Rob and Adam did not sail aboard the same ship. Phoebe had never said a word of complaint, but Rob knew she fretted long sleepless nights about her menfolk, and the dangerous profession they had chosen. He had not dared risk both Courtneys’ lives in the same battle. Until now.
‘Let us hope they do not regret it.’ Scipio sounded troubled.
Angus laughed – too loudly. Deep down, he felt the same misgivings as his friend.
‘It’s yon Dutchmen we should be worried for,’ he said stoutly. ‘With one Courtney coming at ’em, they wouldn’ae stand a chance. With two of ’em . . .’
He clapped Scipio on the shoulder and led him forward.
‘We should celebrate. Claret and brandy may be ﬁne for the likes of Admiral Rob and Captain Adam, and grog’s all right for them, but I need a good dram of whisky.’
The wind dropped that night, as Scipio had predicted. Next morning, it blew stiff and steady, licking the waves with crisp white foam. At ﬁrst light, Rob sent a boat ashore to reconnoitre the beach. The men returned and pronounced it clear of defences.
‘How is the sea?’ Adam demanded.
‘A fair swell,’ said the coxswain. ‘Nowt we can’t handle.’
‘What about it, then?’ Adam asked Rob. ‘Sir,’ he added hastily, remembering there were others present. ‘We have seven thou-sand men in the transports. If we put them ashore now, we could cut off Cape Town from the rear. The garrison would have to come out and give us open battle, away from the castle.’
Rob studied the shore through his one good eye. If the wind turned, or rose again, the boats would be trapped in a nexus of currents, waves and rocks, with no escape. The high dunes behind the beach offered cover for marksmen or artillery if the Dutch managed to bring them up.
‘What do you say, Scipio? Will the weather hold?’
Scipio nodded. ‘For a few hours.’
Still Rob hesitated. ‘I do not like the look of that reef. The current will draw the boats on to it.’
‘We can run one of our sloops aground against it,’ said Adam. ‘The Bluebell’s hull is so rotten she would never survive the journey home in any event.’
‘That is an excellent plan.’ Rob swung around to his ﬂ ag lieutenant. ‘Mr Jones! Signal the ﬂeet. We will commence landing forthwith. The troop ships will disembark their men, while the bigger ships lay down a bombardment.’
‘There is no one ashore to hit,’ objected Jones.
‘Then let us keep it that way.’
The men jumped to their orders. A string of signal ﬂags was hoisted to the masthead. Adam hung back.
‘General Beresford will not be happy when he learns he has made a two-hundred mile round trip to assault a fort we have already taken.’
‘That presumes we will have taken it.’
Rob checked the wind again.
Does it feel stronger already?
Seven thousand men’s lives depended on the decision he had taken. Adam grinned. ‘With Lucky Courtney leading us, how can we fail?’
My luck will run out one day, Rob wanted to say.
Every time he heard his nickname, he felt a twinge of superstition. His instincts, his courage, his seamanship and his judgement, he trusted absolutely. But luck, like fate, was a capricious goddess. It could turn at any moment.
He would show no self-doubt.
‘Death to the French,’ he said loudly.
‘And confusion to our enemies,’ chorused his ofﬁcers.
The men on deck huzzahed and threw their hats in the air.
A cannon’s roar split the sky. The sixty-four gun Diomede had already begun the bombardment of the beach.
‘You will not regret this,’ Adam promised.
Boats were lowered, troops mustered and weapons checked. The deck was a frenzy of activity as the crew attended to their allotted tasks: to an outsider it would have looked like chaos, but in reality it was highly ordered and disciplined. Rob stood still on the quarterdeck, the eye of the storm, observing the commotion he had unleashed. Thousands of men were moving to a purpose – some maybe to their deaths – because he had given the word.
‘Over there, sir.’
Jones, the ﬂag lieutenant, saw them ﬁrst. Riders, galloping over the crest of the dunes, reining in as they saw the ﬂotilla making for the beach. Through a telescope, Rob could see they were not uniformed as regular soldiers, but civilians: sober-suited farmers. Each carried a long riﬂe holstered by his saddle.
‘Not enough to make a fart’s difference,’ sniffed Angus.
As he said it, a cannonball from the frigate struck one of the riders square on. Rob saw his torso torn in two. The Dutchman’s head and shoulders cartwheeled across the ground. The panicked horse galloped away across the beach, the rider’s legs and waist still held in the saddle by the stirrups, fountaining blood.
‘That’ll learn ’em,’ said Angus.
‘They’ll bring others.’
Three of the riders turned and spurred back towards Cape Town. The others dismounted. They tethered their horses out of sight, then took up position on the back of the dune ridge, where the bombardment could not reach them. Rob glimpsed the ﬂash of a spyglass.
‘More will be here soon.’ The tension was building inside Rob. He hated being out of the action. Against his better judgement, he felt himself giving in to the red mist. ‘I am going ashore to reconnoitre.’
‘Sir?’ said Adam in shock.
‘I will not ask my men to face dangers while their admiral sits in comfort in his ﬂagship.’
‘But that is your job. What has got into you?’
Rob was silent. Maybe it was older age that was prompting him – goading him to emulate the fearlessness of his youth, to recover the spark of being truly alive.
‘I will accompany you,’ said Adam.
‘No. I need you at your post commanding the ship. If the Dutch bring up troops, we will need to react quickly.’
There was a boat alongside, ready to ferry men ashore. Before Adam could argue further, Rob shinned down the ladder, as nimble as the topman he had once been. The men on the oars began to protest as he squeezed between them, then hurriedly knuckled their foreheads when they saw who it was. Broad grins broke out on their faces. They were going into battle with Lucky Courtney.
The landing was in full spate now as the ships disembarked their troops. The boats crowded the bay. The rowers had to feather their oars, trying to ﬁnd pockets of water among the press to make progress. Steering was out of the question. They moved en masse, as the boats knocked and bumped one another forward.
Rob crouched and scanned the beach. There were rocks close to the surface that would capsize the overloaded boats in an instant if they struck. With no steerage way, there would be nothing the crew could do to avoid them. Worse still was the danger from the beach. If the Dutch brought up artillery, they could cut bloody swathes through the landing ﬂotilla.
The beach was clear for the moment. But what lurked in the undulating dunes beyond?
Coenraad Voorhees cursed the British. Then, for good measure, he cursed the Dutch governor, General Janssens. It was hard to say whom he hated more: the British invading his homeland, or the government, who had summoned him from his farm on the Zuurveld frontier, on the colony’s eastern border, to ﬁght in the militia.
He had almost refused. He had a wife, eight children, a hundred head of cattle and eighteen Negro slaves on his farm. The Xhosa tribesmen on the other side of the Fish River were always looking for a chance to cross and steal his livestock, while the governor ordered the Boers to stay behind a line that some ofﬁcial in Amsterdam had drawn on a map. As if the blacks had any right to that land when it was so fertile and ripe for grazing. When the blacks got too uppity, Coenraad and his fellow farmers would form a commando and traverse the river. They would slaughter a few of the Xhosa menfolk, burn their villages, and give their women a lesson they would not soon forget.
That was what it meant to be a Boer. You defended yourself and your property, whatever the law demanded.
And that was why he had answered the governor’s call now. Not out of loyalty to the government, but to defend his land. He scrambled up the back slope of the dune, holding his riﬂe clear of the ground to prevent sand from fouling it. It was a beautiful weapon, though immensely heavy: so long that you could rest its butt on the ground while sitting on horseback and reload without having to dismount. He had carved the stock himself from stinkwood, curving the butt like the thigh of a male baboon.
He had cast the bullets himself, too, tempering the lead with tin to make it hard enough to penetrate even the toughest animal hide. He was wasting them on men – human skin was a soft target – but he wanted to hurt these men. He wanted the bullets to smash their bones and organs and come out the other side to strike the man behind as well.
If you provoked the Boer, kicked sand in his eyes, he would put a knife in your guts.
He edged to the ridge of the dune. To his right, a crew of Malagasy slaves were manhandling a gun into the emplacement they had dug out of the sand. They made too much noise – if they had been his slaves, he would have given them a lash of his sjambok – but the crash of the surf hid the sound from the men who were staggering ashore on the beach. They were Scotsmen, kilts ﬂapping in the breeze and bagpipes wailing. They looked like seasoned ﬁghters, but that didn’t worry Coenraad. The joy of the hunt was pitting yourself against a worthy adversary. And if he missed the landing party, there were always the men in the boats behind, packed so tight it would be like shooting cattle in a kraal.
He laid out the cartridges and his powder horn on the sand, and sighted his riﬂe. He unwrapped the cloth from the lock. This was the moment he enjoyed most – the power of holding a man’s life in your hand, the power of the hunter over his prey.
An ofﬁcer, with a weathered face and plenty of gold lace on his uniform jacket. He would be a ﬁne kill for Coenraad’s bag.
Coenraad closed one eye. He nestled the stock against his cheek, wrapped his ﬁnger around the trigger – then squeezed.
The gun spat ﬂame, smoke and lead. His aim was true. The hardened ball hit the ofﬁcer below the ribbons on his chest and ﬂung him backwards into the water.
That was what happened when you fought the Boer, Coenraad thought. Try to take his property, his land, and he would take your life.
Even above the roar of the surf, Rob – out in the landing ﬂotilla – heard the shot. His head snapped up, homing in on the source. He saw everything in an instant: a puff of white smoke from the sand dune, and, on the beach, a Highland colonel staggering back into the surf, clutching his chest. The gold braid on his uniform coat had made him an obvious target.
More shots cracked from the dunes. Reinforcements had arrived. There must be a whole company of Dutch sharpshooters entrenched at that spot. But what if they were only the vanguard?
A deep roar boomed behind Rob. The ships were returning ﬁre, pounding the beach with the full weight of their broadsides. Cannonballs screamed overhead, throwing up high plumes of sand. The men in the boats crouched low, while the Highlanders who had already gained the beach ﬂung themselves to the ground.
None of the men were novices. Almost all had been in battle before. But the soldiers were out of their element, trapped in bobbing boats on a tossing sea, caught between the cannons behind and the riﬂes on shore. Some started to panic. Boats rocked; the rowers missed their strokes, and as soon as they faltered the current took them. It swept them sideways, pushing them east along the beach towards the reef.
The sailors in Rob’s boat saw the danger and tried to pull away, but there was a boat butted up hard against their windward side which gave their oars no room. Now the reef was so close they could almost touch it. The sailors tried to fend it off, but their oars might as well have been toothpicks. Some snapped; others were wrenched from the men’s hands.
The boat shuddered as it struck. Men were trapped. As the oars wedged against the rock, they jammed, pinning the men to their benches. One almost caught Rob’s knee, but he wrenched it away and managed to scrabble to his feet. Stepping over his own men, Rob lunged for the side of the vessel.
The boat had already started to tip. Frantic soldiers were trying to climb over the side, scrambling into the neighbouring vessels. But those were overloaded, too: any more men would capsize them. Chaos would spread from boat to boat; the ﬂotilla would be lost. With their equipment weighing them down, even the soldiers who could swim would drown.
Rob unbuckled his sword belt, pulled off his uniform coat and leaped onto the rock. The surface was wet and worn smooth by the waves: he slid straight off it into the water. He clung on, seeking a foothold underwater. He found a crevice in the rock and wedged his foot in. If he misjudged his next actions, there would be no escape.
The boat drifted towards him. Low in the water, she looked as huge as a whale. A splintered oar ﬂoated on the surface nearby. Rob grabbed it. Propping it against the rock, he tried to fend off the oncoming longboat. He knew he could not stop it. Instead, he bashed at the hull, trying to turn the bow away from the rock.
The boat slid so close to his face he could taste the tar from the caulking on his lips. Men were leaning over the side, staring down at him and yelling. Water mufﬂed his ears, so he could not hear. He held his breath. Another inch closer and the hull would grind him against the rock like a millstone.
Behind him, he heard the hull scrape against an outcropping and for a moment he thought his time was up. The stern of the boat was swinging round towards him, inch by inch. It grazed his cheek, pushing his head back against the rock. He felt his skull begin to crack like a nut.
Suddenly the pressure eased. He could breathe again. He had managed to push the boat away; a small pocket of space opened out on the water. But another boat, caught by the current, was already bearing down on him.
‘Grab hold of the painter!’
He had to shout to be heard. Salt water swept into his mouth and made him gag, but he spat it out and shouted again, waving frantically. He saw an oar sweeping low over the water towards him. He duck-dived a second before it would have stoved in his head.
Resurfacing, he saw a man in the bow of the second vessel take a rope and throw it to the boat ahead. The line was taken in and went taut.
Past the rock, free of the crowded ﬂotilla, the lead boat was able to manoeuvre. Her crew worked the few oars that hadn’t broken, pulling clear. They dragged the trailing boat away from danger. That allowed the second boat’s crew to row, opening more space. The jammed ﬂotilla began to drift apart.
As quick as a squall, the panic that had threatened to engulf the men subsided. Sailors dug in their oars and sent their vessels cruising forward. Highlanders found their balance. They kneeled on the thwarts and poured a brisk ﬁ re at the beach, while the ships behind pounded the dunes with their cannons.
In the confusion, Rob had been left on the rock. But he was a strong swimmer. He kicked his foot free and turned towards the beach.
There was a shadow in the water.
Shark, said a voice in his head – he had seen them often enough, growing up – but no sooner had he thought it than he realised he was wrong.
Sunlight glinted on brass buttons. It was a soldier. He must have fallen from a boat in the panic and was sinking fast. In a moment, he would be out of reach. Without hesitating, Rob dived down and wrapped his arms around the man’s torso.
The body was limp; hair ﬂoated like weed. It was impossible to tell if he was alive or dead. Rob pushed hard, lifting him to the light. They broke the surface, and almost went under again as a wave smashed over them. The waterlogged soldier, with the full kit and sodden woollen jacket of a corporal, was nearly three hundred pounds of dead weight, but Rob did not let go. He raised his head above water again and thumped him hard on the back.
A shudder convulsed the man. He was alive. Rob paused for a moment, treading water and taking his bearings. He was two hundred yards off the beach, with an ominous line of white breakers to pass through. Up on the dunes, he saw the muzzle ﬂashes of riﬂes ﬁring at the landing force. He doubted the Dutch could see him. At that distance, low in the water, he would be lost in the waves.
He took a breath and struck out towards the beach. The sea was high, and a vice admiral of the Red does not go swimming very often, let alone carrying a half-dead corporal. But Rob had spent his childhood exploring the coves and inlets of Nativity Bay; his grandmother had joked he was half porpoise. The movements returned effortlessly. He powered through the water with strong, purposeful kicks, his arm under the soldier’s shoulders.
The noise rose as they approached the boiling breakers. The corporal’s weight tried to drag Rob down, but he tightened his grip and kicked harder, paddling as hard as he could with his one free arm. A wave was coming in. Rob let it lift him and the corporal, kicked towards its crest, then gave himself over to the merciless wave to carry them both forward on its surge.
The wave broke. Rob stopped trying to swim; instead, he wrapped himself around the soldier and held his breath as the surf tumbled them over and over in the maelstrom. For a moment, he felt weightless. Then his foot touched solid ground. He launched himself up; his head broke the water and he saw the beach only a few yards distant. Dragging the corporal by his shoulders, he staggered onto the beach.
He had returned to Africa.
A bullet hit the ground beside him. The marksmen in the dunes were still in full action, and the Highlanders forming up on the beach were too far away to provide cover. Rob had left his sword in the boat and lost his pistol in the water; the corporal had his ammunition pouch attached to his belt, but the powder was soaked. Rob scanned the open beach for a rock to hide behind, but there was nothing.
The corporal was coming to. Rob dragged him towards the shelter of the dunes – closer to danger, but at least they would not be out in the open. From the corner of his eye, Rob saw a silhouette rising, an impossibly long riﬂe levelling at him. Rob could make it to cover if he ran, but that would mean abandoning the corporal to certain death.
If he did nothing, they would both die.
The air hummed as a cannonball screamed overhead and slammed into the slope above. The marksman ducked away, as a column of sand exploded into the air and rained down around them.
Rob was convinced it was more than luck. Adam must have been watching from the quarterdeck. He would have seen Rob emerge from the sea, and assessed the danger from the riﬂe-men in the dunes. Now any Dutchman who wanted to shoot Rob would have to expose himself to the full force of the ship’s broadside.
Rob dragged the corporal over the stretch of beach and found a hollow at the foot of the dunes. The corporal rolled over and purged lungfuls of water.
‘Christ, but that was a cunny hair from drowning.’ The salt water had done nothing to douse the man’s broad Scots accent – or the colour of his language. He was a small, terrier-like man, with a red moustache and a corporal’s stripes on his shoulder. He stuck out a trembling hand. ‘Frank Waite.’
Without his uniform coat, Rob had nothing to indicate his rank. He had lost his ﬁne boots and stockings, and his tailored breeches had been torn ragged in the surf. The corporal had mis-taken him for a common sailor.
Rob shook the proffered hand. ‘Robert Courtney.’
Corporal Waite’s ﬁrm grip went suddenly limp.
‘Admiral Courtney? Vice Admiral Sir Robert bloody Courtney?’ ‘I will be when I get my ﬂeet back. In the meantime, rank is no protection from a Dutch bullet. We are equals on this beach.’
‘Aye,’ said Waite doubtfully.
Rob’s mouth was parched. ‘Do you have anything to drink?’
The corporal unbuttoned his tunic and fetched out a small ﬂask. Rob took a deep draught to wash the salt water from his mouth – and nearly choked as the raw taste of whisky burned his throat.
‘I didn’t think the Highlanders needed any extra courage,’ he said.
‘No more we do, sir,’ said Waite. ‘But ﬁghting’s a sore thirsty business.’
‘That it is.’
Rob glanced up. At the foot of the steep dunes, with Adam’s cannon covering them, they were safe from the sharpshooters above. It would be possible to wait out the rest of the battle, until the Highland regiment formed up and made their advance.
It was not in Rob’s nature to lie low while his men were being shot at.
‘I am going up there,’ he told Waite.
The corporal looked unsurprised. ‘I’ll follow ye.’
‘Maybe we will get you a sergeant’s stripe before the day is out.’ Rob clambered up the slope. Sand ran into his shirt and his breeches. He paused at the top of the rise – then, in a sudden bound, sprang up and rolled over the top.
A cry of alarm told him he had been seen. Before he had stopped moving, he located the source of the sound. A burly man, with a sunburned face and the blue uniform coat of the Cape Dragonder militia, was loading a long riﬂe, ready to ﬁre at Rob. He handled the riﬂe with ease; less so the militia jacket. The tight-ﬁtting seams cramped his movements, giving Rob half a second more time. He hurled himself at the Dutchman.
The man pulled the trigger. Rob was so close that the dis-charge scorched his face: surely the man could not miss. But in his haste, the man had snatched it. He hadn’t ﬁnished reloading. The ramrod ﬂew an inch past Rob’s shoulder and stuck quivering in the sand behind him.
Rob drove into the Dutchman and wrestled him to the ground. On the soft sand, neither of the men could keep their footing. They rolled to the bottom of the slope, locked in each other’s grip.
Rob was ﬁrst to his feet – but it was scant advantage. He was not a weak man, but in the last ten years he had spent more time wielding a pen than his ﬁsts. The Dutchman was a farmer who could carry a springbok across his shoulders. He pulled himself upright, spitting curses.
For the ﬁrst time, Rob felt afraid. He squared up to his opponent, keeping his ﬁsts high. He tried a left feint, followed by a right jab, but the Dutchman dodged them easily. He answered with a straight hit to Rob’s face, a punch like a kicking horse. Rob managed to block it. Too late, he realised that it had been a feint. The attack with real purpose was a ﬁst to his belly that doubled him over. Before he could recover, the Dutchman brought up his knee, trying to smash Rob’s nose. He caught Rob’s chin instead, snapping his head back so hard it almost broke his neck. Rob ﬂew back and landed on the sand.
The Dutchman pulled a blade from his belt. It was the hunting knife he used for ﬂaying the carcasses of the game he shot, or some-times the blacks who trespassed on his land. Rob lay helpless, dazed from the blow he had taken. The glimmering blade was a blur of white light. He tried to crawl away, but the Dutchman put a foot on his leg and pinned him fast.
The knife dropped. A heavy weight thumped into Rob, knocking the breath out of him. He tasted blood. But it was not the killing blow. The Dutchman had collapsed on top of him, bleeding where his scalp had been cracked open. Blinking, Rob saw Waite with the ramrod in his hands. It had broken in two with the force of the blow Waite had struck.
Before the Dutchman could recover, Waite picked up the fallen knife and stuck it through his ribs.
‘You saved my life,’ Rob gasped.
‘That’s why the Lord moved you to pull me out of the water,’ said Waite.
He wiped the knife on the Dutchman’s jacket, then expertly frisked the corpse. A few guilders disappeared into his ammunition pouch. He picked up the dead man’s long riﬂe and reloaded it.
‘What now, sir?’
Rob’s head was clearing. He stood, scanning his surroundings for any new dangers.
A sharp crack sounded from the narrow valley that wound through the dunes. It was different from the report of a riﬂe – more like the snap of a whip. It was followed by a cry and a groan.
Rob and Waite exchanged glances. They crept through the spiky rhinoceros bush, over a saddle in the dunes to a valley leading down to the beach. It looked like a well-trodden path that stray livestock and antelope might take to the shore; now it was blocked. Timbers had been thrown across it, and the sand dug out to form a makeshift embrasure. Eight black slaves, naked to the waist, were serving a small eight-pound ﬁeld gun under the direction of a white ofﬁcer. They must have dragged the cannon all the way from Cape Town. Their hands bled, and their feet were shackled so they could not run away
The ofﬁcer struck one of the slaves. The man tripped on his fetters and stumbled into the gun. The scalding hot barrel scorched his skin. He screamed and dropped the cannonball he was carrying. That earned him another sharp lash of the ofﬁcer’s sjambok, which left a bloody welt across his shoulders.
Rob felt his blood rise. Growing up on his family’s homestead in Africa, it had never occurred to him to judge a person by the colour of his skin. The people of the local tribes had been friends and guests; their children had been his playmates. He had not forgotten the horror he had felt the ﬁrst time he saw how British and American planters treated their slaves – the barbarism they meted out in pursuit of their proﬁts. Twice in his early career, he had freed slaves from their owners, and both times it had nearly cost him his life. Since then, every slaver on the oceans feared crossing paths with a ship under Robert Courtney’s command.
The sight of the slaves being forced to ﬁght for the men who oppressed them made him boil with anger. He grabbed the riﬂe from Corporal Waite and stepped into the open. It was an age since he had ﬁ red a long arm, but it settled against his cheek easily. With a single ﬂuid motion, he sighted and ﬁred.
The hardened bullet hit the Dutch ofﬁcer between the eyes, drilled through his brain and emerged from the back of his head. He stood for a moment, almost too surprised to die, then collapsed. The slaves, accustomed to violence, reacted faster. They threw themselves to the ground, burrowing into the sand.
‘Go!’ Rob shouted.
The Africans looked up, but did not move. They didn’t speak English, and they would not trust the word of a white man.
‘Go!’ he said again, more urgently. He slipped effortlessly into the Qwabe language he had learned as a child with his playmates, the language he spoke sometimes with Phoebe. ‘Go before the Dutch come back.’
The sight of a white man speaking like an African astonished them. One, bolder than the others, rose to his feet. He backed away, never taking his eyes off Rob. Rob smiled encouragement and waved him on.
Waite found a set of keys on the Dutch ofﬁcer’s belt and tossed them to the slaves. The leader unlocked his manacles, then freed the others. One by one, they climbed to their feet, rubbing their ankles and staring uncertainly at Rob.
Then they turned and ran into the dunes.
Rob knew it was only eight men – eight, against the tens of thousands who would be kidnapped and brutalised every year. But eight was better than none.
‘There’s more’n a few Scotsmen who’ll be alive tonight because you took that gun out of service.’ Waite was examining the cannon, wondering if it could be turned on the Dutch. ‘You’re not like any admiral I’ve ever seen before.’
But Rob didn’t answer. Above the noise of battle, Waite had not heard a shot, let alone the wet plash of lead hitting ﬂesh. Yet now Rob was lying on the ground, blood pumping from his chest.