Author: Laura H fried_flamingo
Chapter Rating: R (for violence)
Category: angst, romance, AU
Disclaimer: The Mouse owns all.
Previous chapters here
The Black Pearl rocks, like a babe slumbering in her cradle; the water of the Atlantic, stripped of its usual fury, strokes her wooden skin with gentle fingers. The ship, heavy with cargo, sits low in the water and the men are content, their pockets and bellies full. An all encompassing calm has settled upon deck that not even the surrounding fog can dissipate. Joseph Ragetti observes, though, that one amongst their number does not seem quite so at ease with their new found prosperity. Captain Swann prowls from bow to stern, back and forward, until Ragetti thinks the planks under her feet might give way as her boots wear them down. She stares out into the grey void, watchful, her hands always touching some part of her ship, as if the contact alone might offer some respite from her present unease.
Her disquiet sets Ragetti on edge and he finds, suddenly, that he has no stomach for the wine purloined that day from a Portuguese cutter, en route to Charles Town. Opening his hand he sets the bottle rolling across the deck toward Pintel, who grabs it eagerly, even though he’s consumed two already this evening. He raises the bottle to Ragetti in a gesture of thanks and takes a deep swallow. Despite his mood, Ragetti grins as he watches his friend stagger backward, knocking two other men to the deck and narrowly avoiding a drunken fracas only by grace of the good humour currently enjoyed by the crew.
Below deck a pipe and fiddle spring to life and a voice, thick with the accent of the Irish, begins an enthusiastic chorus of the Galway Piper. The song is a favourite of Ragetti’s, but tonight the lively reel brings him no joy; not while the captain frets so.
He pushes himself to his feet and hesitantly walks to where she stands near the bow, hands braced on the dark wood. Her stance is poised like a cat, ready to spring and Ragetti wants to tell her that there’s no fight to be had here, but something about the look on her face stops the words in his mouth. He opts for safer territory.
“A fine night, Captain,” he says, a hesitant smile on his lips. “The men are the most content they’ve been for a while.”
The captain’s frown only deepens at his words, her eyes never leaving the fog shrouded waters in front of them. “The men’s thirst for wine has been slaked, Ragetti,” she replied, casting a rueful glance over her shoulder. “It makes them slow and stupid.”
“It makes them happy, Cap’n. Hardly a bad thing surely?” he asks in earnest.
Captain Swann turns to him and smiles, cheerlessly. “No battle was ever won by a happy soldier, mate. We need fire, not wine, to light our bellies.”
“But we ain’t soldiers, Cap’n,” he says and flinches at the sharp look she throws him. Nevertheless he continues. “We’re pirates and we’re doing what pirates is supposed to do.”
“All the same…” she begins, but says so more and, not for the first time, Ragetti wonders whether the captain is spending more time in the past than is good for her - thinking of the battles she once fought and those with whom she fought them.
“You’ve done good by us, Cap’n,” he offers. “All the men say so. He’d say so too if he were ‘ere.” Immediately he regrets his words; her knuckles tense white upon the wooden rail and her jaw clenches. Throughout the past seven years Captain Swann has spoken Jack Sparrow’s name as many times as could be counted on Ragetti’s two hands, but his presence always remains at her shoulder, as constant as old Cotton’s parrot. There’s an air of expectation that surrounds her; a sense of waiting. Sometimes Ragetti too, wonders if Jack Sparrow will ever return. More often, though, he thinks it would be best for the captain if he never did. Too many times has he stumbled upon her, running that piece of red fabric through her fingers, like an eastern holy man with his prayer beads.
“Should never have come this far north,” she mutters, almost to herself, eyes raking the water. “Should never have let the men persuade me.”
From the crew deck the music changes and Ragetti thinks he recognises the soft voice of young Padraic, the lad from Sligo. The reel has been replaced by a gentle ballad sung in the boys native tongue and, though he can understand nary a word, Ragetti feels the ache of a traveller longing for home. He slouches against the rail and stares into the fog, wondering for a moment if the rest of the world has disappeared, reduced to this small grey circle in which the Pearl sits at anchor. For a moment the notion seems so likely that he turns to share it with his captain, but his tongue is stilled when abruptly she pushes herself from the bow, alert, eyes keen.
Ragetti looks back into the fog but sees nothing until, for a second, something shines in the darkness; a glint of yellow.
The captain’s voice is a low, harsh whisper. “Ready the - ”
The first volley of cannon fire destroys the main mast before she can even complete her order. It topples, like a drunken man in a tavern, crashing into the ship, taking with it five men and most of the starboard hull. The pin point of yellow becomes two, then three, until the fog is alight with the lanterns of the assailant ships. Four of them, two to port, two dead ahead, and as they cut their way through the mist, Ragetti can see that the colours they fly are Red Jacks, the flag of the Union described canton in the upper corner. Privateers. Their approach has been stealthy through the still night ,but now they let fly with the full force of their canons, engaging the Pearl to windward.
The deck of the Black Pearl erupts into activity at the blast; Captain Swann storms through the melee, shouting orders as she goes. In rapid response the men cast their bottles aside and leap to the capstan, frantically trying to raise anchor and flee. Speed, not fire power, is their ships advantage, but though he jumps to quarters with the rest of them, Ragetti knows that in the light breezes of these seas, with their main mast gone, they are as good as dead in the water. Wood explodes around him, slivers catching his flesh and blood pours from the shallow wounds. Everywhere, men fall and suddenly it seems that all movement has slowed, as if the Pearl and those upon her are hanging suspended many fathoms under the sea.
Up is down…
Ragetti tries to run but his arms and legs are slow and heavy and he feels pinioned by some otherworldly current.
He is First Mate though and he has a duty to perform so desperately he scrambles forward, calling all hands to quarters, down all chests, hard to starboard. Forcing his heavy limbs up the quarter deck steps, Ragetti makes it to the helm as another blast rips through the ship and he pulls hard, trying to veer her to starboard, but the wheel spins freely beneath his hands and, with a sickening lurch of horror, he realises that the rudder is gone.
A series of heavy cracks sound, as grapple hooks sink into the black wood of the Pearl’s rail and soon the deck is swarming with enemy sailors. Whirling in panic, Ragetti searches for the captain, but the ship is in chaos, her wooden bones aflame and smoke clouds his vision making his good eye stream with water. The captain is nowhere in sight.
Has she left us?
The thought jars and even as it passes through his mind he knows it to be untrue. No coward was Elizabeth Swann. Still though the panic grips him and he sees men running to the longboats in anticipation of the next order, the only one that would make any sense in such conditions, but he knows it is an order Captain Swann will never give. Death is a prospect she will embrace if faced with the choice of relinquishing her charge. Ragetti, on the other hand, has pledged no such allegiance to a past that has long since forsaken them.
“Abandon ship!” he yells, choking on the thick smoke belching from the flaming Pearl. “Abandon ship!”
Or abandon hope, whispers a ghost, but he ignores it and bounds down the stairs, running to where the men are pulling at the knots securing one of the longboats. Fighting off two assailants they succeed in lowering it into the waiting sea, a loud splash in the darkness. Men are throwing themselves overboard, not caring if there is a boat waiting to take them to land, just wishing to escape from the ship whose decks are now awash with fire and blood.
Musket blasts and pistol cracks fill the air and he can see Pintel clinging to the top of the rope ladder, ready to make his escape. His friend gestures for him to hurry, to flee the besieged ship, but Ragetti scans the bedlam one more time, reluctant to leave while the captain is unaccounted for. And it’s then he sees her, fighting with a brute of a man, at least a foot taller than her and three feet thicker. Sword clashes against sword and, though he cannot hear, Elizabeth Swann’s mouth is spread wide in a roar of anger and defiance. Blood courses down one side of her face, yet she seems oblivious, parrying each blow her opponent throws at her and returning them with equal force and fury.
When he considered it later, and consider it he did on many occasions, Ragetti supposed that he might have been able to warn her; that if he’d looked just slightly to the right he would have seen the approach of the second man - a thin, whippet-faced fellow, who smiled throughout the bloodshed. But stricken as he was with panic and fear, such details escaped him in the moment. Too late did he notice the man’s stealthy approach at the captain‘s back, too late did he see him pull the dagger from his belt and only after he’d watched the bastard slip his arm around her middle and push the blade, slowly, into her side did Ragetti find his voice.
The cry leaves his throat raw and for a second he thinks the captain hears him, for she turns as if searching for someone. There is a heartbreaking, desolate look in her eyes and Ragetti thinks he sees her lips form a word, before the dark spread of blood on her shirt draws his eye. Her eyes close and she falls to the deck.
He runs, not to the side of the ship as was his previous intention, but towards his captain, where she lies stricken on the boards, a wet, black stain pooling at her back. His progress is halted by a blow to his face from a hard metal object. He feels the bones in his nose shatter and blood pour over his lips. As his eyes close on the red and gold hell around him, the last thing Ragetti sees is the captain’s pallid face. The concussion begins to cloud his mind and his thoughts turn to jumble, but as he sinks into unconsciousness one final, solid notion forms in his head. Elizabeth Swann has died a pirates death and Jack Sparrow will never know.
Then cold. Then dark. Then silence.
Something wakes him. A noise, perhaps. A shout. Though upon waking all around him is still and quiet. He is aware of nothing else then, but the pain; razors of agony shooting through his face when he tries to open his mouth. At first all he can see is darkness, but slowly the darkness separates into light and shadow and then he can make out the torch flame gleaming on the damp brick of the walls. Tentatively he rolls onto his side and takes in the rest of his surroundings. Another fifteen or so of the men have been crammed into the tiny cell. Fifteen out of a crew of thirty five. Scanning the faces Ragetti notes that the captain is amongst those missing from their number.
‘Can’t think on that any further,’ he says to himself and ignores the heavy feeling that lies low in his belly.
His broken nose is swollen, making it difficult for him to breath, but there’s a revolting taste in the back of his mouth and Ragetti’s been in enough prisons to know that it’s caused by a foul soup of sweat, blood and human waste. Fresh slivers of pain slice their way through his face as he sits up, scanning the silent, solemn figures in the cell trying to see who made it and who didn’t. He’s relieved to see Pintel leaning morosely against the bars of the cell and tips him a slight nod, which is returned wordlessly. Lying on the floor next to him is young Padraic, the singer of the ballad that Ragetti had found so haunting just hours before. The boys eyes are open, but glassy and unseeing, and Ragetti wonders if he has a mother back in Sligo who will await in vain her son’s return from the sea.
The scream, when it comes, shatters the silence, echoing around the damp bricks of the prison. A cry of agony and despair; the sound he thought he had heard in his nightmare, but this time all too real. He knows with gut wrenching certainty from whom the cry came. The men amongst the huddled group who are able, leap to their feet, straining at the bars, cursing at their captors. Ragetti does not stand. Instead he plucks his wooden eye from its socket and begins to rub, until splinters pierce the skin of his fingers.
He’s still rubbing when the men appear and begin dragging them from the cell, one by one. Despite his swollen nose, Ragetti is suddenly aware of a smell that fills the air, like bouccans he thinks strangely, and the woman screams once more.
Better that she had died aboard the Pearl, he thinks and as he is hauled to his feet by two guards, the wooden ball slips from his fingers. He can only watch as it rolls away across the flagstones.
“What did they do?” asked Jack, his voice quiet, not sounding like his own. Ragetti didn’t answer, but continued to rub his eye on the cuff of his shirt. Reaching out, Jack covered the man’s hand with his own, stilling his restless fingers. “Joseph,” he said, “what did they do to her?”
“They made her choose, Captain Sparrow. They made her choose.”
She is slumped, bruised and bloodied, in the corner when they are pushed into the room and does not stir at the commotion. On the exposed skin of her forearm, the wound still smokes; the single letter is an angry, blistering red and Ragetti gags at the stench of burnt flesh. A hand clamps onto his shoulder and, like the rest of the crew, he is forced to his knees. Only then does he become aware of the man leaning casually on the opposite wall. He swings the still smouldering branding iron in one hand, like a twisted dandy with a cane, before plunging it back into the glowing brazier.
“Here is your crew, Captain Swann,” he says and his voice is so gentle, so tender almost, that Ragetti thinks of the words one might whisper to a lover. “Here are the men who call you their leader. What remains of them anyway.” The Dandy turns towards them and it’s only then that recognition dawns. This is the privateer he saw on the Pearl, the same smiling man who slid the dagger into the captains side.
“What say you, Captain?” he continues, walking slowly down the line of kneeling men. “Shall we give your men the same mark that you now bear? Are they deserving of the name pirate?”
“Better to be pirate than snivelling toady of the crown.” The captains voice is slurred and hoarse, but still fierce for all that. For the first time since they entered the room, the Dandy’s smile falters. Something stirs in Ragetti’s chest, something that might be pride, when he sees that despite her weakened state, she has pushed herself up from the floor. Through the blood and grime that coat her ashen face, an expression of furious determination is visible.
“What?” asks the Dandy, striding over to where she sits against the wall. He leans down and grabs a handful of her hair, pulling her round to face him.
“I say mark them all,” she spits, and raises her blistered arm. “I have known better men than I who wear this badge and I say ‘tis no shame. I will bear this with pride for it marks me as pirate and I have no desire to be anything else.”
“Ah, I see.” says the Dandy, and a slow dread fills the pit of Ragetti’s stomach for he sees that the man’s smile has returned. “Tell me, Captain Swann, these better men of whom you speak.” He releases her hair and stands up. “Do you perhaps refer to Jack Sparrow?”
The captain flinches at the name, but says nothing. “Jack Sparrow, the scourge of the King’s fleet, bane of the East India Company. Do you refer to the same Jack Sparrow who so happily took the shilling and, in a heartbeat, bowed beneath the oath of the British Empire?” The Dandy chuckles, mockingly, but the captain shakes her head.
“There are more pirates than Jack Sparrow upon these oceans and as long as we have breath in our lungs and courage in our hearts you will know us. Never shall we die!”
Her words ring loud and true in the small room, and the crew of the Black Pearl erupt into cheers and shouts of defiance, ignoring the muskets suddenly pointed at their heads. When they are silenced it is not by the guns, but by the laughter of the Dandy. It starts as in incredulous snigger, but soon builds into uproarious guffaws.
“Never shall you die?” he says, when his laughter has finally abated. “Oh Miss Swann, how wrong you are. You are dying. All of you. If only you would accept what others have acknowledged to be inevitable. The time of the pirates is over, my dear.”
“The time of the pirates will never be over!”
“Shipwreck Cove has fallen.”
At those words it seems that something breaks inside all of them. Ragetti feels it. Around him he hears the gasps of denial, of disbelief.
“Don’t you listen to him, Cap’n!”
The voice comes from his left side and turning, he realises Pintel has been kneeling next to him this whole time.
“You’re lying,” whispers the captain.
“No,” says the Dandy. “No, I’m not. It would seem that Senor Villanueva has more desire for coin in his pocket, than for courage in his heart, and was more than acquiescent to the requirements of the Royal Navy when offered substantial monetary recompense. Funny that, what with him being a pirate and all, eh?”
Captain Swann closes her eyes, a fat tear sliding through the filth on her cheek.
“Your loyal subjects? The notorious Captain Teague? All are dead, Your Majesty. Your kingdom lies in ruins. What I’m saying, Captain Swann,” he continues, in that gentle tone, like the whisper of water on shark‘s teeth, “is that you are alone. You will always be alone, for there is no one left to save you.”
“So,” he says, brightly, turning back to the brazier and pulling from it the iron, “to return to the matter at hand, would branding seem a fitting punishment for these wretched individuals who would still call you their king?” He seems to contemplate for a moment the glowing metal. “Or, if your claims are to be believed, would it in fact be a badge of honour? Perhaps I should think of some other penalty to dispense, one that would open your eyes to what sinners you are, and set you firmly upon the path of the righteous. An example needs to be set here one would hazard.” His grin widens, as if he has been struck by the most splendid idea, and he returns the iron to the embers. Pulling an ivory handled knife from his belt, the same one Ragetti had seen in his hand while on the Pearl, the Dandy turns to the captain.
“Choose,” he says, simply, and at first her brow furrows in confusion.
“Choose,” he says again and comprehension dawns on Ragetti as the captain too seems to understand.
“No,” she whispers, horror stricken.
“My dear Miss Swann, you must choose one man to die or I will instruct my men to put a musket ball through the heads of each man under your command. Not only that, but I shall make you watch and afterwards will personally take great pleasure in blowing the side of your skull off. Now choose!”
Around him, the men begin shouting, some yelling obscenities at their captors, some calling for the captain to choose them, some begging her not to. By his side, old Pintel has broken down in muffled sobs, but Ragetti remains silent, stricken by fear to his very bones. Captain Swann drags herself to her feet and staggers away from the Dandy.
“You are a monster,” she hisses. “I will not choose!”
“Very well,” says the Dandy, smiling and gestures to one of the guards in the room. A loud report brings all disorder to a halt, save Pintel’s sobs. Moments later something slumps heavily to the floor. Ragetti stares fixedly ahead, unable even to bring himself to look and see which of his crewmates was the unfortunate one. He clenches his fists in an effort to keep his hands from trembling.
From the corner of his eye, he sees the Dandy raise his hand again to order another execution. At his side, Pintel’s sobs have quietened.
“No!” cries the captain.
The man turns to her. “Then you will choose?”
“Elizabeth Swann!” she cries, desperately. “I choose me!”
The Dandy sighs and purses his lips, as if faced with a small child who has done wrong. Reaching out he tenderly brushes the strands of hair from the captain’s tear streaked face, before cupping her chin with his fingers.
“Come now, Elizabeth. Do you expect it to be that easy?”
“I… I can’t…” She scans the faces of the men who have served under her command, some for just a few months, some for the full seven years that she has been captain of the Black Pearl. Briefly, her eyes come to rest upon Ragetti and, to his shame, he prays that she doesn’t speak his name.
“Choose me, Captain,” says a quiet voice, and finally Ragetti breaks as he realises who has spoken. He weeps for the knowledge that events can follow but one path now. His body shivers for the grief that he knows is to come.
“Pintel, I can’t,” whispers the Captain. “I can’t…”
“You have to,” replies his friend, with grim acceptance.
Suddenly it seems to Ragetti that the world exists now in a series of sharply focused details. There is no prison nor prison guards, there is only Elizabeth Swann’s eyes and as he watches, something in them flickers and dies. She nods, once, and then it seems she fades into nothing. The next detail is the glint of torchlight on the blade of the dagger. It shines in his eye and he blinks against the glare. The Dandy approaches. Ragetti turns to his friend who looks steadily back at him and smiles sadly.
“We’ve got to look after our immortal souls, mate,” says Pintel, and they are the last words he ever utters.
There was no sound save the creak of the broken mainmast, as it trailed forlornly in the water. Ragetti’s hands were still now, the little wooden eye clutched tightly in his palm, turning his knuckles white. Jack wanted to speak but words eluded him. Privateers. He should have known. In his mind’s eye he could see the letters of marque that were stowed safely in his trunk on the Duchess Mary, the seal of the crown emblazoned upon them in red wax. He thought of the oath he had pledged and the ships he himself had taken in the name of the Empire.
Had I been in these waters…
Jack stopped, unwilling to follow that chain of thought to its conclusion. Black though his soul may be, never in his life, as either pirate or privateer, could he have been so cruel or so wicked. Especially not to her. Knowing this however changed nothing. Jack rubbed his wrist, feeling the badge he himself wore; it was hard for him now to remember a day when the skin had ever been smooth. Elizabeth had endured pain that few could imagine, that even fewer could tolerate and survive. Yet survive she had.
“How did she…? How did you all get out of there?” he asked Ragetti.
“They set us adrift,” he replied. “Didn’t have mercy enough just to kill us. Don’t how many days we spent at sea in that dinghy. Lost four more to the thirst. A fever had struck the captain on account of how much her wound had bled and I thought we was going to lose her too…” His voice broke slightly, but he took a breath and carried on. “But we didn’t lose her, did we. She fought that sickness and she was still hanging on by the time we washed up on shore. She made it, sir.” Ragetti paused as if unsure whether to continue and then said, “Well, most of her did anyway.”
“What does that mean?” asked Jack, knowing the answer already. For the first time since he had begun his story, Ragetti looked Jack in the eye.
“You’ve seen her, sir. You must see what she’s become. Like there’s a part missing from her. She drinks and she fights and, yeah, that’s what pirates is supposed to do, but she doesn’t do it for the love of pirating. Sometimes…” He paused and looked away. “Sometimes I think she does it ‘cause if she didn’t, then she’d just… stop. The captain left that prison still breathing in and out, sir, but I often wonder whether they killed her all the same.”
Jack dropped his face into his hands, cursing again the brightness of the sky and the glare of the ocean. He’d thought leaving her was for the best, that his presence in her life would bring naught but strife. And as long as he’d remained pirate and stayed in these waters, in her life he would have remained, whether it be as loyal subject of the Pirate King or… that other role he could never define.
But when he’d heard that Shipwreck Cove had fallen, he should have come home. He should have known that she needed him. By then, however, he felt like a stranger, far removed from Jack Sparrow, the Pirate Lord. He hadn’t thought there would be anything to which he could return. How had she felt, he wondered, when she thought he had abandoned her?
“You look like you might be requiring a drop of this after all, sir.” Jack looked up to see Ragetti proffering the uncorked rum bottle.
After a moments hesitation, he took it from him and, raising it to his lips, drank long and deep. The back of his throat burned with the rich taste and a familiar fire spread into his chest, setting his insides aflame with such delicious heat. How could he ever have given this up? But when he pulled the bottle from his lips, the ache was still there. No rum glow would take that away. “I should have been here, mate.”
Ragetti took the bottle from his hands and smiled. “You’re here now, sir.”
Jack stood and wiped the trace of sweet liquid from his mouth. “Yes I am,” he said, resolutely, and set off for the cabin of the Valioso.