THE BOY snapped awake.
“All hands on deck!” bellowed the bosun. “That means you too, Jack!”
The bosun’s weather-beaten face loomed out of the darkness at the boy, who hastily dropped from his swaying hammock to the wooden floor of the ship’s middle deck.
Jack Fletcher, only twelve, was nonetheless tall for his age, and slim and muscular from two years at sea. His eyes—hidden behind the straggly mess of strawblond hair he had inherited from his mother—were an azure blue, and glinted with a determination and fire far beyond his years. He pushed his hair aside and groaned, his limbs aching from the relentless work the crew had been forced to do while battling a tirade of storms.
Men, weary from the long voyage on board the Alexandria, slid from their bunks and pushed past Jack, hastening to the upper deck.
Suddenly there was an almighty crash, followed by a shrieking of the timbers. Jack was thrown to the floor. The small oil lantern suspended from the central beam of the dingy hold swung wildly, its flame spluttering. Jack landed heavily among a pile of empty casks, sending them spinning across the bucking floorboards.
He struggled to find his footing as several grime-ridden, half-starved crewmen stumbled past in the flickering darkness. A hand grabbed the back of his shirt and dragged him to his feet.
It was Ginsel.
The stocky Dutchman grinned at Jack, revealing a set of jagged teeth that made him look like a great white shark. Despite his severe appearance, the sailor had always treated Jack with kindness.
“When will these storms stop hounding us? It sounds as if hell itself has opened up its gates!” growled Ginsel. “Best get yourself up on the foredeck before the bosun has your hide.”
Jack hastily followed Ginsel and the rest of the crew as they scrambled up the companionway and emerged into the heart of the storm.
Menacing black clouds thundered across the heavens, and the complaints of the sailors were immediately drowned by the relentless wind that ripped through the rigging. The smell of sea salt was sharp in Jack’s nostrils, and ice-cold rain slashed at his face, stinging him like a thousand tiny needles. But before he could take it all in, the ship was rolled by a mountainous wave. The deck flooded and foamed with seawater, and Jack was instantly drenched to the skin. The water had barely cascaded away through the scuppers when another tumultuous wave roared across the deck. This one, stronger than the first, swept Jack off his feet. He barely managed to grab hold of the ship’s rail to stop himself being washed overboard.
Jack recovered his footing as a jagged line of lightning scorched its way across the night sky and struck the main mast. For a brief moment, the entire ship was illuminated in a ghostly light. The three-masted ocean trader was in turmoil. Her crew was scattered across the decks like pieces of driftwood. High up on the yardarm, a group of sailors battled against the wind, attempting to furl the mainsail before the storm ripped it away, or worse, capsized the ship entirely.
On the quarterdeck, the third mate, a seven-foot giant of a man with a fiery red beard, was wrestling with the wheel. Beside him was Captain Wallace, a stern figure who shouted commands at his crew, but all in vain: the wind whipped his words away before anyone could hear them.
The only other man on the quarterdeck was a tall, powerful sailor with dark brown hair tied back with a thin piece of cord. This man was Jack’s father, John Fletcher, the pilot of the Alexandria, and his eyes were fixed on the horizon as if he hoped to pierce the storm and seek out the safety of land beyond.
“You lot!” ordered the bosun, pointing at Jack, Ginsel, and two other crew members. “Get yourselves aloft and unfurl that topsail. Now!”
They immediately headed for the bow of the ship, but as they crossed the main deck to the foremast, a fireball plummeted out of nowhere—straight toward Jack.
“Watch out!” cried one of the sailors.
Jack, having already experienced several full-on attacks from enemy Portuguese warships during the voyage, instinctively ducked. He felt a rush of hot air and heard a deep howl as the fireball flew past and plunged into the deck. The impact, however, lacked the fearsome crack of iron against wood that a cannonball caused. This sounded as dull and lifeless as a dropped bale of broadcloth. With sickening horror, Jack’s eyes fell upon the object now at his feet.
It was no fireball.
It was the burning body of a crewman, struck dead by the lightning.
Jack stood transfixed. The dead man’s face was etched in agony and so disfigured by fire that he was unrecognizable.
“Holy Mary, mother of God,” exclaimed Ginsel.
“Even the heavens are against us!”
But before he could utter another word, a wave crested the rail and swept the body out to sea.
“Jack, stay with me!” said Ginsel, seeing the shock rise in the boy’s face. He grabbed Jack’s arm and tried to pull him toward the foremast.
But Jack remained rooted to the spot, a sickness rising from the pit of his stomach. He could still picture the burned-out eyes of the dead sailor. This was by no means the first death he’d witnessed on the voyage, and he knew it would not be the last. His father had warned him that crossing both the Atlantic and the Pacific would be fraught with danger. Jack had seen men die from frostbite, scurvy, tropical fever, knife wounds, and cannon shot. Still, such familiarity with death did not make Jack numb to its horror.
“Where’re you going?” yelled Ginsel, as Jack ran for the quarterdeck. “We need you aloft!”
Jack, though, was lost to the storm, struggling toward his father in a chaotic battle against the elements as the ship pitched and rolled from one side to the other. He knew he should go with Ginsel, but the need to help his father outweighed any duty to the ship.
He had barely managed to reach the mizzenmast when another colossal wave plowed into the Alexandria. This one was so powerful that Jack was whipped off his feet and washed across the deck. The wave bore him in the direction of an open gangway, and he slid inextricably toward the dark seething ocean.