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Authors: Michael Cadnum

Peril on the Sea

BOOK: Peril on the Sea
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Peril on the Sea
The King's Arrow
Nightsong: The Legend of Orpheus and Eurydice
Can't Catch Me
The Dragon Throne
Starfall: Phaeton and the Chariot of the Sun
Blood Gold
Ship of Fire
Daughter of the Wind
The Leopard Sword
Forbidden Forest: The Story of Little John and Robin Hood
Raven of the Waves
The Book of the Lion
In a Dark Wood
The Lost and Found House
Zero at the Bone
The Judas Glass
Taking It
The Cities We Will Never See
The Horses of the Night
Breaking the Fall
Saint Peter's Wolf
By Evening
Calling Home




, S




Copyright © 2009 by Michael Cadnum
All rights reserved
Distributed in Canada by Douglas & McIntyre Ltd.
Printed in the United States of America
Designed by Jay Colvin
First edition, 2009
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Cadnum, Michael.

Peril on the sea / by Michael Cadnum.— 1st ed.

      p. cm.

Summary: In the tense summer of 1588, eighteen-year-old Sherwin Morris, after nearly perishing in a shipwreck, finds himself aboard the privateer Vixen, captained by the notorious and enigmatic Brandon Fletcher who offers him adventure and riches if Sherwin would write and disseminate a flattering account of the captain's exploits.

ISBN-13: 978-0-374-35823-5

[1. Pirates—Fiction. 2. Armada, 1588—Fiction. 3. Adventure and adventurers—Fiction. 4. Great Britain—History—Elizabeth, 1558–1603—Fiction.] I. Title.

PZ7.C11724Pe 2009



For Sherina

More than anything
bright points of

yet to bloom


HIS BOOK is a work of fiction but is in many essential ways true.

Many of the characters are based on people who actually lived. The Lord Admiral Howard was a real person, and so was Sir Francis Drake, and the celebrated privateers John Hawkins and Martin Frobisher. Many of the places are real, too, from the seacoast village of Beer to the famous ports of Plymouth and Southampton, and while I take liberties with the placement of manor houses and goose pens, the windswept cliffs of the south coast and the men and women who lived there are based on reality.

What is even more important, the attack of the Armada actually took place, and the adventures of the improvised navy Queen Elizabeth pulled together to defend her realm are as I depict them.

While my main characters are creations of my own imagination, the world they live in is built from the stuff of actual tumult.

In talking with veterans of wars of our own era, I have been struck by how vivid the memories are. Naval battles have stormed, comrades have lost their lives, and gunfire has obliterated the future. These events have taken place accompanied by heightened sensations of both horror and wonder that leave the surviving witnesses forever altered.

When we take part in history, we are at the same time experiencing our personal, subjective lives, and sometimes fighting simply to survive. It is this sense of personal ordeal and individual triumph that drove me as I wrote this story, just as it fuels my friendship for my characters, my respect for their courage, and my admiration for their loyalty to life.


HERWIN MORRIS woke to the smell of fire.

Heavy seas had been building all day, and now the merchant ship
was standing to, the ship set sideways against the wind and the sea swells that rocked her.

Sherwin could hear Captain Pierson on deck, the ordinarily good-humored ship's master calling out, asking why the fire was still burning after the entire watch had been sent below to smother it.

Sherwin squeezed out of his narrow bunk, pulled on his doublet, thrust his cap onto his head, and joined the captain on deck. The night was thick with smoke, despite the strong wind that raked the ocean around them.

Recent hours had been troubling enough. The
had been dogged by an unfamiliar ship just visible on the horizon during the previous blustery day's sail, an English ship, by all reckoning, but one unknown to the captain, and all day Sherwin had sensed increasing anxiety in the cargo ship's crew.

But no one had anticipated this.

As soon as Sherwin saw the flames licking through the grate over the cargo hold he felt sick. The
was three days out of Hamburg, the thriving German-speaking port. The ship was laden with wine, a notoriously flammable cargo, but one that rarely caught fire, due to the skill of English coopers and the fact that there was usually enough briny leakage in the hold to discourage it.

Captain Pierson caught the look of concern in Sherwin's eye, and he gave a nod. “Lend a hand there, Sherwin, if you will,” he said. The captain had agreed to train Sherwin—a youthful gentleman—in the fine points of shipboard life, and in exchange Sherwin was going to pen a history of Captain Pierson's voyages, with a publisher on Paternoster Row near Saint Paul's already secured.

But his duties also included helping the crew, especially in an emergency. Sherwin joined the gathering of hands on deck, manning a pump to draw water out of the English Channel and down into the fiery hold. As the pump water spewed and guttered into the increasing blaze, Sherwin could sense the fear of death seize his shipmates, among them Risley, the ship's cooper, with his hearty laugh silenced for the moment, and Wyman, the ship's gunner, laboring beside Sherwin with a prayer to Lord Jesus.

The moment might have been the span of a few heartbeats, or it might have been a quarter of an hour.

Sherwin had no way of reckoning the passage of time.
And in a way he had no desire to. This was, after all, the sort of experience eighteen-year-old Sherwin had sought in signing on with the well-regarded merchant captain—that, and the chance to earn money and a portion of public notice with the adventure he was intending to publish.

There was, furthermore, a sense of companionship rooted in the effort to save the ship that captivated Sherwin. Ship's boy and grizzled veteran alike, they all labored in a highly disciplined passion—more pumps brought into play, axes tearing at the decking, First Officer Timm calling out for the boatswain.

And then an explosion ripped the dark.


HERE WERE TWO BLASTS, actually, although in Sherwin's mind they seemed like one single event.

The first was a heat-rich heave of air, a gust ripe with the smell of burning oak and seething brandywine. Risley let out a groan, and Wyman shouted into Sherwin's ear, “Cling to the ratlines, lad.”

Then the second explosion shattered timbers and flung snaking lengths of cordage, and this second blast stunned Sherwin with its intensity and gave him an instant, sick realization that no vessel could survive such violence.

lurched upward, and sideways, the deck splitting, flaming liquid spewing in spirals through the dark. Sherwin did as he had been advised and clung to the webbed ropes. The ratlines were themselves smoking, surprisingly, and he continued to cling even when the ropes caught fire around him, the tar and hempen fibers giving way to flame.

Sherwin felt the vessel lurch to starboard. Men were
leaping into the water by then, and the sea was steaming as flaming splinters of spruce rained down. Few sailors could swim—the knowledge was not widely learned. But Sherwin had been raised among rivermen and swan poachers, a gentleman's son taught by neighbors to swim like a water spaniel.

He released his grip on the burning ratlines and half fell, half leaped into the darkness.

The distance was greater than he had anticipated. The ship cast a reflection on the water, and he could make out the vivid image as flames reached up into the stays and gathered canvas of the sails above.

When he struck the water at last, he plunged deep, far below the surface. Not only was the early summer sea colder than Sherwin had expected, the water was saltier, stinging his eyes. His wool breeches and doublet were instantly leaden with brine, and Sherwin kicked back toward the surface, feeling the weight of his belt and his heavy linen shirt dragging him down.

He worked frantically to escape his clothing. Twenty sailors thrashed about on the surface, and then half that many, howling and swallowing water, some of the men going down with desperate dignity, others bawling and sputtering until the last moment.

On the crippled ship above, a boat hung on its davits, lowering down into the sea. A lurch of the ship caused the boat to empty her passengers, and Sherwin called out in horror as Captain Pierson plunged into the water.

The captain sank, and he did not reappear.

Sherwin had heard tales of ships going under, and had heard his ale-drinking companions recount the many times a sinking craft had sucked down sailors, drawing them in as surely as a swirling drain. Sherwin put his swimming powers to use, fighting to win distance between himself and the burning ship.

Small, darting creatures scouted outward from the vessel, rats in flight. Sherwin was relieved to hear the sounds of other men in the water, struggling to stay alive.

burned until, outlined in flame, she slipped heavily downward into the deep.


ITH A BOILING HISS of steam, the burning ship sank into the wind-whipped water and vanished.

The churning sea that followed her passage downward was pocked with spars and barrels, entire casks erupting into the starlight, to float intact on the black surface.

Nearly naked, and increasingly cold, Sherwin was shivering, the chill taking all sensation from his hands and feet. He swam toward one of the scattered, bobbing barrels and heaved his body over the rounded dome of a cask.

If nothing else, this largely fragmented cargo was proof that until moments before a protective ship had offered shelter. A wet and sinuous shape darted up out of the water, clinging to Sherwin's shoulder, and he gave a shout as he seized a frenzied rat and hurled the creature back into the dark.

He clung to the barrel for a long time, and felt that the passage of hours had ceased. Sherwin was tempted to envy his companions who were already in the merciful presence of their Lord.

He prayed with cold-stiffened lips, begging Jesus to keep the souls of his shipmates in peace, and grant him a further lease on life. His teeth snapped with the chill. His limbs were cramped, and even as he gripped the barrel the floating object dodged and lurched, rolling with a sullen heaviness, and he nearly fell back into the sea.

The swells continued, long, wind-lashed summits that from the ship had been little more than welcome proof that the weather was driving the
toward Southampton. By morning the ship would have been close enough to receive a pilot, sent out from shore to guide the vessel homeward, and Sherwin's first sea voyage, however brief, would have been accomplished.

Sherwin recalled his father's last words before the fever took his life—the barely audible “Sherwin, fear no man.”

This farewell, not two months past, now seemed both wonderful and too brief. Sherwin saw that men were not to be feared nearly as much as the sea, against which no human power could stand.

He was aware of the cruelty of his situation—so near to surviving, but so hopeless at the same time. He had seen rivermen fished from the Thames succumb to cold even after their blue and shivering bodies had been plied with warm cider and the exhortations of loving friends. He believed that long before dawn his limbs would have lost all sensation, and his mind would have grown as numb and blank as every other part of his shriveled form.

This was most likely his last instant of mental clarity,
and he was already given reason to doubt his own sanity: because surely the vision that parted the swells was a hallucination, formed by an alloy of horror and desperate faith. Surely there could be no real ship, showing only storm sails against the driving wind, bearing down on the scattered remnants of the

Despite a doubt so strong it was like certain knowledge, Sherwin undertook an experiment.

He cried out.

He took a deep, shuddering breath and called out again, aware that no one could hear such a thin, ragged sound.


IS VOICE was a small, bleak noise, not enough to call attention from this unknown ship.

BOOK: Peril on the Sea
4.72Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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