'Birds of Prey'

'Birds of Prey'

By Wilbur Smith

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.....What an amazing story! 'Birds of Prey' is overflowing with all of the essential pieces that make a novel great. Adventure galore, non-stop-Wilbur-Smith excitement, and romance on every other page. Daring battles at sea, treasure to the sky, dashing and daring men and women, and keep-the-kids-away scenes of passion. Wilbur has given us something to be treasured, passed on and reread again and again. My only complaint: it took me two days to make up the sleep I lost while reading.

.....In 'Birds of Prey' we continue our association with the Courteney family, this time going all the way back to the mid-seventeenth century. Sir Francis Courteney is the captain of the Lady Edwina a large galleon whose hull supports one hundred and thirty men. Sir Francis' son, Hal Courteney, a young, spirited seventeen year old, is on-board learning to handle a ship so that one day he can take the reigns from his father. Hal is a handsome, fearless, and intelligent boy who is hard driven in his lessons, nautical skills, and swordplay by Sir Francis, and excels at each discipline.

.....Their ship is stationed off of the southernmost coast of the African Continent in search of Dutch trading ships full of gold, spices, guns, and other valuable cargo. With a letter of Marque from the King of England, the Lady Edwina's crew can legally board any enemy ship, and confiscate any cargo in the holds in the name of England, a task that excites, yet put the fear-of-God into each man on board. Hal's first ship-to-ship battle is one he'll remember for a long time.

.....'A ragged broadside thundered out across the narrowing gap but most of the shot fell wide by hundreds of yards or howled harmlessly overhead. Hal ducked as the blast of passing shot lifted the cap from his head and sent it sailing away on the wind. A neat round hole had appeared miraculously in the sial six feet above him. He flicked his long hair out of his face, and peered down at the galleon.'

.....'The small company of Dutch officers on the quarterdeck were in disarray. Some were in shirtsleeves, and one was stuffing his night-shirt into his breeches as he came up the companion-ladder.'

.....'One officer caught his eye in the throng: a tall man in a steel helmet with a van Dyck beard was rallying a company of musketeers on the foredeck. He wore the gold embroidered sash of a colonel over his shoulder, and from the way he gave orders and the alacrity with which his men responded seemed a man to watch, one who might prove a dangerous foe.'

.....'Now at his bidding the men ran aft, each carrying a murderer, one of the small guns especially used for repelling boarders. There were slots in the galleons stern rail into which the iron pin of the murderer would fit, allowing the deadly little weapon to be traversed and aimed at the decks of an enemy ship as it came alongside. When they had boarded the Heerlycke Nacht Hal had seen the execution the murderer could wreak at close range. It was more of a threat than the rest of the galleons battery.'

.....'He swiveled the falconet, and blew on the slow-match in his hand. To reach the stern the file of Dutch musketeers must climb the ladder from the quarterdeck to the poop. He aimed at the head of the ladder as the gap between the two ships closed swiftly. The Dutch colonel was first up the ladder, sword in hand, his gilded helmet sparkling bravely in the sunlight. Hal let him cross the deck at a run, and waited for his men to follow him up.'

.....'The first musketeer tripped at the head of the ladder and sprawled on the deck, dropping his murderer as he fell. Those following were bunched up behind him unable to pass for the moment that is took him to recover and regain his feet. Hal peered over the crude sights of the falconet at the little knot of men. He pressed the burning tip of the match to the pan, and held his aim deliberately as the powder flared. The falconet jumped and bellowed and, as the smoke cleared he saw that five of the musketeers were down, three torn to shreds by the blast, the others screaming and splashing their blood on the white deck.'

.....'He felt breathless with shock as he looked down at the carnage. He had never before killed a man, and his stomach heaved with sudden nausea. This was not the same as shattering a water cask. For a moment he thought he might vomit.'

.....'The Dutch colonel at the stern rail looked up at him. He lifted his sword and pointed at Hal's face. He shouted something up at Hal, but the wind and the continuous roll of gunfire obliterated his words. But Hal knew that he had made a mortal enemy.'

.....'The knowledge steadied him. There was no time to reload the falconet, it had done its work. He knew that single shot had saved the lives of many of his own men. He had caught the Dutch musketeers before they could set up their murderers to scythe down the boarders. He knew he should be proud, but he was not. He was afraid of the Dutch colonel.'

.....'Hal reached for the longbow. He had to stand tall to draw it. He aimed his first arrow down at the colonel. He drew to full reach, but the Dutchman was no longer looking at him: he was commanding the survivors of his company to their positions at the galleon stern rail. His back was turned to Hal.'

.....'Hal held off a fraction, allowing for the wind and the ship's movement. He loosed the arrow and watched it flash away, curling as the wind caught it. For a moment he thought it would find its mark in the colonels broad back, but the wind thwarted it. It missed by a hand's breadth and thudded into the deck timbers where it stood quivering. The Dutchman glanced up at him, scorn curled his spiked moustaches. He made no attempt to seek cover, but turned back to his men.'

.....'Hal reached frantically for another arrow, but at that instant the two ships came together, and he was almost catapulted over the rim of the crow's nest.'

.....'There was a grinding, crackling uproar, timbers burst, and the windows in the galleons stern galleries shattered at the collision. Hal looked down and saw Aboli in the bow, a black colossus as he swung a boarding grapnel around his head in long swooping revolutions then hurled it upwards, the line snaking out behind.'

.....'The iron hook skidded across the poop deck, but when Aboli jerked it back it lodged firmly in the galleon's stern rail. One of the Dutch crew ran across and lifted an axe to cut it free. Hal drew the fletchings of another arrow to his lips and loosed. This time his judgment of the windage was perfect and the arrowhead buried itself in the mans throat. He dropped the axe and clutched at the shaft as he staggered backwards and collapsed.'

.....'Aboli had seized another grapnel and sent that one up into the galleon's stern. It was followed by a score of others, from the other boatswains. In moments the two vessels were bound to each other by a spider's web of manila lines, too numerous for the galleon's defenders to sever though they scampered along the gunwale with hatchets and cutlasses.'

.....'The Lady Edwina had not fired her culverins. Sir Francis had held his broadsides for the time when it would be most needed. The shot could do little damage to the galleon's massive planking, and it was far from his plans to mortally injure the prize. But now, with the tow ships locked together, the moment had come.'

....."Gunners!", Sir Francis brandished his sword over his head to attract their attention. They stood over their pieces, smoking slow-match in hand, watching him. "Now!", he roared, and slashed his blade downwards.'

.....'The line of culverins thundered in a single hellish chorus. Their muzzles were pressed hard against the galleon's stern, and the carved, gilded woodwork disintegrated in a cloud of smoke, flying white splinters and shards of glass from the windows.'

.....'It was the signal. No command could be heard in the uproar, no gesture seen in the dense fog that billowed over the locked vessels, but a wild chorus of warlike yells rose from the smoke and the Lady Edwina's crew boarded up into the galleon.'

.....'They boarded in a pack through the stern gallery, like ferrets into a rabbit warren, climbing with the nimbleness of apes and swarming over the gunwale, screened from the Dutch gunners by the rolling cloud of smoke. Others ran out along the Lady Edwina's yards and dropped onto the galleon's decks.'

....."Franky and St. George!" Their war-cries came up to Hal at the masthead. He saw only three or four shot down by the murderers at the stern before the Dutch musketeers themselves were hacked down and overwhelmed. The men who followed climbed unopposed to the galleon's poop. He saw his father go across, moving with the speed and agility of a much younger man.'

.....'Aboli stopped to boost him over the galleon's rail and the two fell in side by side, the tall Negro with the scarlet turban and the cavalier in his plumbed hat, cloak swirling around the battered steel of his cuirass.'

....."Franky and St. George!" the men howled, as they saw their captain in the thick of the fight, and followed him, sweeping the poop deck with ringing slashing steel.'

.....'The Dutch colonel tried to rally his few remaining men, but they were beaten back remorselessly and sent tumbling down the ladders to the quarterdeck. Aboli and Sir Francis went down after them, their men clamoring behind them like a pack of hounds with the scent of fox in their nostrils.'

.....'Here they were faced with sterner opposition. The galleon's captain had formed up his men on the deck below the mainmast, and now their musketeers fired a close range volley and charged the Lady Edwina's men with bared steel. The galleon's decks were smothered with a struggling mass of fighting men.' (Pages 32-35)

.....Thd Dutch colonel and Hal Courteney have many more encounters, and an epic sword fight near the conclusion of the novel, in which neither exits unscathed. I hope you have a long weekend off to enjoy the many new characters that Wilbur Smith creates for your enjoyment in this novel. It is time and money well spent.

*Wilbur Smith. 'Birds of Prey'. Published by St. Martin's Press, New York, New York. 1997.