August 25th, 1569
South of Bassam, on the Ivory Coast
There was clearly only one thing to do: Get in among the customs troops where their muskets would just be heavy clubs. Peder ran, shouting for his men to join him. Fortunately there was no time for the Bretons to coordinate the volley that would have stopped the charge in its tracks. The ones at the front fired, but as individuals; and snapshots with the 13-pound Valencia-pattern musket were just not very dangerous.
Being a scion of a wealthy Yngling squire, Peder had been given training in the martial art called håndvåpen. His men hadn’t, but they were smugglers and brawlers. Their opponents, on the other hand, were regular troops of the Breton customs guard, policemen as much as soldiers, with little experience in close combat. Two of them went down under Peder’s first snake-swift knife-strikes. But they pushed forward in a closed mass, and the brawl took on the character of a formal battle; now it was the Norwegians, not used to this sort of fight and wielding shorter weapons, who were at a disadvantage. They were inexorably pushed backwards.
Peder stepped back to avoid a musket stroke, and found nothing to support his right foot. He went crashing down awkwardly; his right leg dangled into the ship’s interior while his torso and left leg were on opposite sides of the hatchway he had just fallen into. Some idiot landsman had left a hatch open. Worse, one of the idiot’s comrades was about to exploit the idiocy to kill him, Peder: In a moment the Breton line would sweep over him and a musket would come down, and he was in no position to dodge. His position was too awkward to get up in a hurry. Instead he gathered in his left leg and dropped gracelessly down the hatchway, landing with a thump in the hold.
He had landed on a raised gangway, away from the slaves chained neck-and-neck all along the hull. That was fortunate, since they would certainly have torn him limb from limb if they could get at him. As it was he flinched from the strong stench of shit and despair, although at least it was not yet mingled with death as it would be a few weeks’ sail into the Atlantic. But a smuggler was used to that. He quickly reoriented himself. The slaves would be the victor’s loot, the important thing was to get back into the battle above and make sure he was the victor. Climbing back up the hatch would be suicide. He had to find some other route. But suppose he could get up forward, find a different hatch, and come in behind the Breton line? A quick attack in their rear might break up their formation and create the chaos that would favour his men. He’d better not dawdle, though, the Brezhoneg shouts from above were getting more triumphant by the moment.
He sprinted forward along the hatchway, through a bulkhead, and stopped in surprise. This was where the crew would sling their hammocks; naturally those were stowed away now during the day, but the space was not empty. There were men chained along the hull here too, but they were not black. He grinned in savage realisation: The Bretons had decided to make a little extra profit on the side. White slaves would fetch good prices as curiosities in the eastern markets, especially tall blonds with a reputation as backwards savages. He spoke in rapid Norwegian: “Listen. The Maria Galante is boarding you and stealing your cargo, but we weren’t expecting the fordømte Bretons. Help us and we’ll help you, eh?”
He didn’t bother with their savage curses, instead bending down to insert his knife into a chain link. The chain was cheap pig iron, good enough for holding a naked man but no match for his upper-class steel blade; it gave way with a snap. The man thus freed leapt up, grinning savagely. Peder recognised him with a shock; it was his much-loathed cousin Steinar, bruised and dirty but not seriously hurt, from the way he moved. Peder tossed him his belt knife and bent to free the next prisoner. The cheap chains made quick work; they had all twelve prisoners freed in less than a minute.
“Steinar, we don’t like each other but we’re both in a bind. Here’s the situation. The Bretons are up on deck fighting my men. If we go up through this hatch we’ll be in their rear. You’ll have to use your chains for weapons; hope you’re not too stiff. Once we get up, charge right in; give them a moment and they’ll turn about and use their muskets, and then it’s all over. Ready?”
There was no argument; they all knew what would happen to them if they didn’t seize this opportunity. Steinar led the way, jumping up onto the deck and charging at the Bretons alone, waving Peder’s second knife. Peder and the others followed as fast as they could get up through the hatch. In the confusion of battle the Bretons didn’t become aware of them until Steinar chopped down his first victim, plunging the knife into a kidney. He followed up by wrapping the chain dangling from his lefthand around a Breton neck and squeezing, then grabbed the fallen man’s musket and began laying about him with that. Then Peder’s knife went into the neck of a man turning about too slowly, and a crewman jumped onto the trooper beside that one and began biting, and it was all over. A huge cheer went up from the Norwegians on the other side of the Breton line, and they poured into and then through the weak spot. With their cohesion broken the Bretons were no longer a match for the individual fighting skills of the slavers. The line unraveled in both directions, quickly becoming nothing but individual troopers running for their lives – with nowhere to go but the river. Some of them would likely make it to the bank, the river wasn’t that large; but with their powder wet, they’d be easy prey for the natives.
Combat-exhaustion threatened to knock him out, but there were things to do first, before anyone else recovered. That was the secret of the Viktorsson luck, Peder’s father had told him: Always do things fast, even when you were tired and would rather stand about panting heavily and leaning on a railing, as Steinar was doing. Two of the Nordvesten crewmen were down with wounds, leaving nine including Steinar. On the other hand they were not as exhausted as the dozen unwounded members of Maria Galante‘s crew, and they were carrying stolen muskets. If it came to a fight it was not clear who would win.
“Steinar! Who is captain of this ship?”
The other Yngling blinked. “I am, of cou – ”
Peder’s fist drove into his stomach, and he doubled over, gasping.
“No, you’re not. I’m captain, by right of conquest. Now, here’s the deal. You helped us out in a tight spot, so we won’t rob you completely blind like we were going to. We’ll leave you half your cargo, and you can have the shit in our holds, and you’ll go somewhere else and let us deal with the chief at Bassam. Got that?”
Peder leaned threateningly over his cousin, making sure he understood the implicit threat in the words. Steinar had no need to know that it wasn’t so clear-cut as all that; if the Nordvesten men fought, well, the odds were in Peder’s favour but they weren’t overwhelming. Even if he won he might be left with too small a crew to transfer the slaves between ships. Speed and intimidation, that was the trick; if his cousin were given time to think, he would spit defiance out of plain Torsteinsson habit.
Steinar licked his lips, looking about. His men were looking at their captain; the Maria Galante‘s crew, taking Peder’s cue, were grinning intimidatingly and ostentatiously reloading pistols. Peder lifted his kinfe threateningly, and Steinar’s resolution collapsed.
“All right! Fine! You win, you Viktorsson bastard.”
The tension went out of the confrontation as Peder’s men collected the muskets. Steinar stood slumped by the railing, defeated; for a moment Peder felt sorry for the man. It couldn’t be easy to be a Torsteinsson, and know that you were always going to come out second best. He shook his head, dismissing the thought; no doubt Steinar would have done fine if he hadn’t insisted on being in the way of a Viktorsson out to make some money. It was a big world; there was plenty of room, even for the second-best men. After all the Torsteinssons were Ynglings too.
Just not as good at it.