It wasn’t the first time he’d had a taste of the cat, nor was it the worst. But the pain stirred such memories, such dark intolerable memories, that he could scarcely breathe; serrated teeth piercing his side, the crushing stench and the horrible, futile reach for the sweet oblivion of death... To the Locker with you, Jack Sparrow. You’re a faithless liar and ye’ve earned no right to death.
Jones’ voice startled him awake before he realised he’d been sleeping, slumped sideways against the wall. Elizabeth was curled up some feet away, her face, like a child’s in sleep, smudged with dirt and grief. He closed his eyes against the image of her dying father and thought that, before, he would have been faster – cleverer – and would have saved the old man. He’d warned her it was a trap, but he’d done nothing to prepare her, nothing to stop the trap from being sprung.
“And why should you?” The insolent slur came from the far corner of the cell, from the filthy slouch of darkness he’d been ignoring since they first arrived. “After what she did to you, she deserves to suffer. Treacherous bitch, why should you lift a finger to save her any pain?”
“She did what was right by her,” he said wearily. “Can’t say fairer than that.”
“So did Barbossa. You made him pay in the end, didn’t you?” The figure moved, matted black hair falling across its face. “Do you remember?” it hissed. “Ten years you carried the weight of his betrayal, let it shape you, temper you like a blade. You were quick, then. Clever. Always plotting, always a step ahead.”
“And for what? In the end, she was only a ship. Ten years of me life wasted chasing revenge when I could have been living. Could have…” Despite himself, his gaze drifted to Elizabeth; he knew it was a mistake, even before the creature hooted its derision.
“Could have what, Jack Sparrow? Become a good man? Made yourself worthy of the love of a good woman?” It gave a spiteful laugh. “Mate, you’re Captain Jack Sparrow. Savvy?”
The pain across his back was sharp now, anchored to a place somewhere in the centre of his chest - a place of darkness, of emptiness, pulling everything into the very core of him. And yet still he was so barren, so desolate. Sometimes, it seemed, he was nothing but empty.
“Do you remember what it felt like, Jack?” It was sly now, whispering into the void. “Do you remember what it felt like to pull the trigger after all those years? To watch him bleed? To watch him die and know that it was by your hand?” It waved a filthy arm toward Elizabeth. “Barbossa stole your ship, betrayed your trust. How much more did she take? How much more did she betray?”
“She had no choice.”
“Would you have left her to die alone?”
“Liar!” It shuffled closer, black rags swirling about it as it moved. “Don’t you want to feel it again, Jack? Don’t you want to make her pay?”
Light sifted through the window and in the distance he heard a cock crow. Dawn was approaching and the time for denial was over. Today, perhaps, he’d reach those distant shores and leave all this behind.
The creature cackled. “Do you think he would take you there? You always were such a fool! The gallows will only deliver you back into Jones’ hands, and he’ll never let you die.”
“I’m on land,” he said, feeling a flutter of fear for the first time. “He’s got no power here.”
“And if they throw your rotting corpse into the sea? If they hang you among the bleached-boned fools what flutter beneath Gallows Point, and let the gulls feast upon your flesh? What then, eh? What then, Jack Sparrow?”
Footsteps upon the stairs, sharp and military, and the creature was shadow once more - a flicker of darkness in the corner of his mind. Not gone, though. Never gone.
“Elizabeth,” he said softly, climbing to his feet and doing his best not to grimace.
She woke immediately, jumping up to stand beside him. Quick as a cat, that girl; strong too, for all her slender elegance, and painfully lovely, even now. To his eyes, her ruthless edges only made her beauty more piercing.
Her gaze darted to the window, her face falling. He knew what it meant; Will had not come and their lives were measured in hours, now.
“Easy,” he said quietly, touching her shoulder as she backed away from the bars.
“There’s still time.”
There wasn’t, of course, but even vain hope was better than no hope at all.
“Are you afraid?” she whispered as the soldiers came to line up before their cell.
“Not of death,” he said. “There are worse things, by far.”
Her head turned and for a moment he caught her eye. He thought she would ask, once more, for his forgiveness, but when she looked away all she said was, “I will see my father again.”
More footsteps on the stairs. Jack braced himself for the return of Cutler Beckett, intent, no doubt, on seeing him thoroughly humiliated before he died. But it wasn’t him.
Elizabeth took a step forward. “James?”
Norrington, wound as tight as ever, trotted down the steps. “Bring them,” he ordered one of the men.
There was a rattle of keys and the cell door opened.
“Are you to take me to my death?” Elizabeth was white as snow, but outrage flashed in her eyes and brought two small spots of pink to her cheeks. “Have greed and ambition so corrupted you that you will watch me hang, James?”
Norrington looked pained, as though someone were twisting him in half. “Hurry, Elizabeth,” he said. “We don’t have much time.”
The fort at Port Royal was still quiet, but it would be less than an hour before the night watch was relieved and the business of the day began. An hour in which James Norrington would destroy his life, again, for a woman he knew could never love him.
But the past day had changed many things and had brought to a head the simmering unease with which he had been living since his return. The death – the murder, he could call it nothing less – of former Governor Swann was an outrage that only served to paint, in sharp relief, the horror of the hangings that had turned Port Royal into a place of terror. Surely the Tower itself had never known such brutality, even in the darkest days of its tyrant kings?
And after seeing Elizabeth so distraught, her father’s blood still staining her clothes and hands, he had known that he could no longer remain silent…
“Enter.” Beckett’s voice carried its usual affected boredom, but Norrington knew him well enough to sense a banked excitement behind the tone. The slight flush to his face when he lifted his head from the papers on his desk confirmed his exhilaration.
Norrington bristled. The man took an obscene pleasure in the suffering he inflicted, and sometimes Norrington wondered who was the greater monster – Jones, or the man who held the knife above his heart. “Lord Beckett,” Norrington said, hands clasped behind his back. “Forgive me, but I can stay silent no longer. I must object, in the strongest possible terms, to the unconscionable murder of Governor Swann.”
Beckett’s eyes narrowed. “Murder? The man was killed during his ill advised attempt to escape, and in the company of a known pirate.”
“An escape orchestrated by yourself.”
“But that would be a crime, Admiral. You’re not accusing me of commissioning a crime, I hope?”
Norrington shifted, but didn’t back down. “Miss Swann—”
“Miss Swann, as you know, is an abettor – and who knows what else – of pirates. And she will face the gallows at dawn, along with…” And here there was a little pause, a little catch in his voice. “…Along with Jack Sparrow. By noon, the world will be rid of them both.”
Every instinct screamed to object, to bargain for her life, and two years earlier perhaps he would have done so. But James Norrington had dwelled a year among pirates, in close quarters with his very own devils, and they sat, still, upon his shoulder. The navy man he had once been had learned to distrust, to scheme, and to lie. He had hoped to leave such things behind upon his return to Port Royal, but as he stood before Lord Beckett, saw the venom running through his veins, the words of Governor Swann came to his mind as clear as if the man stood behind him.
Perhaps, on the rare occasion pursuing the right course demands an act of piracy, piracy itself can be the right course?
Norrington bowed his head. “My apologies, Lord Beckett. Governor Swann was once a trusted friend, and would have been my honoured father had…events not conspired in a different direction.”
Beckett stood, moving around from behind his desk. “We cannot afford to indulge past affections, Norrington. These days will test our mettle, test our resolve; the enemy we fight are sly and ruthless, they will seek our weaknesses and use them against us if we let them.” He paused, lost for a moment in thought. “You will come with me tomorrow, Admiral. Together, we will watch Miss Swann and Captain Sparrow breathe their last, and we will be the stronger for it.”
The revulsion he felt at that moment could never be equalled, but somehow Norrington managed to keep it from showing on his face. Instead, he offered a deep bow. “I shall see that they reach the gallows myself, my Lord.”
Ahead, the night watch stood at their post, alert and wary. Good men of the Royal Scots, both of them, and Norrington felt a flash of relief that he had made it before the guard changed. “Major Forbes,” he said, as they approached. “Should anyone enquire, I am escorting the prisoners to Gallows Point a little ahead of schedule.”
Forbes’ face was poker straight. “Yes, sir. I wish you good luck, sir.” His gaze darted toward Elizabeth. “And to you, Miss Swann.”
“Thank you, Major.”
Norrington heard her reply, strong and steady, but didn’t look around.
Harper snapped off a salute. “Admiral Norrington.”
“Major.” And with that they were beyond the fort, heading up into the hills; their fate now hung in the breeze, dependent on a man who had already stolen what James Norrington had once held most dear – and to whom he was about to entrust her once more.
Turner found him on the battlements, coalescing out of shadow to hold a knife to his throat. He looked more of a pirate than ever before, hair swept back in a black scarf and eyes glittering with anger.
“Commodore Norrington. How interesting to find you so…clean.”
“It’s Admiral Norrington, actually.”
“My mistake.” The knife drew closer. “Where’s Elizabeth?”
“And her father?”
Here, Norrington paused. Turner understood. “You bastard!”
“Lower your voice!”
Grabbing his coat, Turner hauled him into the shadows. “You cannot let them hang her.”
There was a silence. “Then, you’re going to help?”
“It was exactly what I was considering when you ambushed me.” Turner eased his grip on his coat and Norrington brushed absently at the crease he left behind. “You have a ship, I take it?”
“It’s complicated. Do you have a plan?”
“Perhaps.” He considered a moment, studying the young man with his darkening eyes and serious face. “You know that Sparrow is with her?”
Only the briefest hesitation before Turner said, “They were captured together.”
Norrington smiled and said no more. “Be at Gallows Point at dawn. I’ll bring them.”
“How will you get them out?”
“Don’t mistake a uniform for a dull mind, Turner. There are good men garrisoned here, and I shall use them.”
With that, he turned to leave. But Turner spoke again before he’d taken two steps. “I know you hate me for taking her from you,” he said in a quiet voice. “How is it you can risk so much to save her now?”
Norrington turned, but the boy’s face was shadowed and he couldn’t read his expression. “Because my feelings for her have not changed, no matter who she loves.” He looked away, conscious of having said too much. “You think me a fool, perhaps…”
“No.” Turner’s voice was rough-edged. “No, you have my admiration. I’m not sure that I could— Elizabeth always said you were a good man.”
“Too good, it seems.”
Turner didn’t answer, and Norrington found himself grateful. “At dawn,” he said as he left. “Have your ship ready.”
“As far as escape plans go,” Jack Sparrow muttered from close behind, “running toward the gallows seems somewhat lacking in forethought.”
Norrington sighed and glanced over his shoulder. Sparrow’s face was pasty, tight with obvious pain, and his eyes were fever-bright. “On the other side of the Point is the bay in which you were captured and, I presume, some sort of ship at anchor.”
Sparrow fixed him with a look. “The Pearl’s still there?”
“You believe your crew to be so untrustworthy?”
“Pirates,” he said, with a ghost of a smile.
“She’ll be there.” This from Elizabeth, brittle with determination. She walked close to Sparrow, slightly behind his shoulder, watching him; Norrington wondered what the blacksmith would make of Elizabeth’s close concern for the pirate. He’d not forgotten the secret smiles Sparrow had earned during their sojourn aboard his ship, and couldn’t repress a sly pleasure at the prospect of Elizabeth suffering yet another change of heart.
Whatsoever a man soweth, Mr. Turner, that shall he also reap.
Gallows Point, when approached from the sea, offered a fine view of newly hung pirates. From the land, however, it was bleak and scrubby and, in the early predawn light, sky, sea, and rock were cast in shades of grey. Norrington held up a hand to halt them as they drew closer; the overused gallows swung empty and the stench of death carried on the onshore breeze.
Elizabeth shivered. “At least my father was spared this,” she said in a quiet voice. For some reason, even now, Norrington felt a pang of loss when he realised she was talking to Sparrow and not himself.
Behind them, the soldiers he’d brought from the fort – Beaumont, Phillips, and Winchester – looked pale and nervous. And well they should; if their treachery were discovered, Beckett would see them hang. Yet none of the men had hesitated when he’d asked this service of them.
“Now what?” Sparrow said. His teeth were gritted, and Norrington imagined the pain was fierce across his back.
“Now…? Ah!” Norrington almost smiled at the sight of Turner slipping out of the shadows on the other side of the promontory.
“Will!” Elizabeth’s voice sliced like a knife in an old wound, and as he watched her dart across the rock and into her fiancé’s arms, Norrington slid a look toward Sparrow.
His gaze was fixed firmly out to sea. “There’s the Pearl,” he said softly. “Looks like Barbossa waited after all. That’s disturbing in and of itself.”
Behind them, the fort loomed on its hillside, grey as the sea. It would not be long, Norrington knew, before the prisoners’ escape was discovered and the alarm bells were sounded.
He wondered if they would also serve as his death knell.
“They’ll hang you for this.” He was startled to see Sparrow standing so close, his strange, foreign eyes seeming capable of reading a man’s soul.
Norrington didn’t answer, glancing over to Elizabeth and hoping she had not heard.
“You could come with us,” Sparrow continued. “I’m always in need of crew.”
Norrington favoured him with a withering glance. “I would rather face the gallows than the deprivations of your filthy ship.”
“I thought as much.” Sparrow glanced at the three soldiers behind them. “You should probably run, mates. Raise merry hell and what not; it’ll save your skins.”
They stared at him blankly.
“Go on,” he chivvied, waving a limp-wristed hand. “Chop-chop, back to the fort. ‘Pirates ahoy’ and all that.”
“He’s right,” Turner said, striding up behind Sparrow, Elizabeth at his side. “We would not cost you your lives.”
But it was not until Norrington nodded his consent that his men began to move. “What about you, sir?” It was Beaumont, his round face lined with concern.
Sparrow’s grin was fierce, feral. “We’ll take care of him, mate.”
“Sir—?” Beaumont looked far from reassured.
Sparrow held up a hand, cutting him off, then leaned close and murmured into Norrington’s ear. “Stay close to Beckett, and wait for the opportune moment. Savvy?”
He only had time to nod before Sparrow’s fist dropped him like a stone.
It was a race against the sun. Dawn would bring guards to their empty cell, ready to escort them on their final walk, and already daylight was seeping slowly over the horizon; each second brought closer the moment when their escape would be discovered.
Felling Norrington had taken its toll upon Jack’s already beleaguered body and a trickle down his back told him that his wounds bled anew. Exhaustion hung like a fog upon him, but nevertheless he stumbled on, forcing himself to remain upright. Ahead, ran Will and Elizabeth and, though he strove to keep up, they seemed so far off, so distant that he felt he might be looking at them through the wrong end of a telescope.
“They ain’t doing you any favours, are they?” rasped the dark figure who loped at his side. “Would’ve been better leaving you to swing, I daresay.”
Jack pressed his hands over his ears and shut his eyes. “Not now,” he muttered. “Not now.” Suddenly his breath was knocked from him as he collided with something solid and unyielding and, opening his eyes, he realised he had fallen.
Get up, get up, get up, he told himself. But his strength had left him and his fingers clawed feebly at the dirt beneath him as he tried to push himself from the ground. He had not even the breath to call out for help. “A fine situation this is,” he said, hoarsely. “Captain Jack Sparrow left to die with his face in the muck.”
“Fitting enough for you, eh?” The mocking voice was at his ear.
Darkness crept in at the edges of his vision. “Aye, ” he whispered and closed his eyes once more. “Fitting enough.
“Not so fitting as getting you back to the bloody ship where I might kill you myself!” But this was not the voice of that taunting spectre and Jack blinked in confusion, the fog clearing slightly from his mind. Abruptly, he felt himself being hoisted to his feet and, giving his head a shake, he turned to look at the man around whose shoulders his arm was now slung.
“Will Turner. What the bloody hell are you doing here?”
“Looks like I’m saving your hide, Jack Sparrow. Though I can’t think why I shouldn’t just leave you to at the mercy of Beckett’s men.”
Beckett. The name was enough to bring Jack’s wits into sharp focus and the wounds on his back seemed to burn anew. On the horizon the first ray of sun burst across the sky. “We need to get to the long boat,” he said, remembering the urgency of their situation. “They’ll discover we’re gone any second now.” As if in response to his words, a bell began to clamour in the distance; the bell atop the fort, sounding the alarm. Both Jack and Will turned in the direction of the clanging, before setting off along the road again with renewed vigour. Jack did not know from where this new strength came, but feared he would pay for it later.
“The cove is up ahead,” panted Will by his side. “Elizabeth should have reached it by now.” And sure enough, as they crested the small incline, Jack could see Elizabeth pulling the longboat to the edge of the water, making ready their escape. They hurried down the narrow path, Jack leaning on Will in an effort to stay on his feet, and then ran towards the water’s edge. But as they neared the boat a sound, far more alarming than the tolling bell, could be heard in the near distance; the raised voices of soldiers as a search party approached. It could be but a matter of moments before they would be upon them. Jack knew then that there was only one avenue left open to him, to any of them. As Will dragged him towards the waiting longboat, Jack stopped and pulled back. Will whirled round to face him.
“What are you doing, Jack? Can’t you hear them? They’re almost here!”
“William.” He said no more and he had no need to, for the young man straightened, the panicked expression falling from his face. Will understood what must be done. He nodded.
“Jack! Will!” Elizabeth’s cry was urgent, anxious. She ran towards them, dropping the oar upon the sand and catching hold of Will’s sleeve. “Are you both mad? They’ll find us any second.” Jack didn’t move as Will caught hold of her waist, pulling her back towards the longboat. “Come on, Elizabeth, we have to go now.”
She looked from one to the other in confusion, as if they were playing some awful trick. “No,” she said, incredulously. “What is this?”
“Elizabeth,” said Jack, as firmly as he could. “Go with Will.”
“No!” Struggling free, she ran towards him, clutching at his shirt. “No, Jack! I won’t. I won’t leave you. This is absurd.” Just over the ridge behind the cove, the crunch of many boots could be heard growing louder; it wouldn’t be long until they were found.
“It’s me they’re after, love, not you,” he whispered as he took hold of her wrists. “It’s me that Beckett wants.” And then his hand was on her cheek, his eyes searching every inch of her face. How sweet was his downfall, how beautiful. “Trust me, Lizzie. ‘Tis better this way.” And it was.
Let it end here. Let all of this be over now. His fate would be of his own making, and not governed by ancient words, written by men long since turned to dust.
Then he set his jaw and hardened his eyes, pushing her from him - shoving her backwards towards Will and towards the ocean. She stumbled, almost falling, before Will caught her.
She turned to him beseechingly. “Will, please! You can’t let him do this. You just can’t!”
But the voices were too close now, just over the ridge of the cove, and if they didn’t leave now then Jack’s sacrifice would be for naught. So, as Elizabeth fought off Will’s attempts to pull her towards the boat, Jack grasped the smooth wood of the oar and swung. She collapsed forward, sagging into Will’s arms, and the boy cut Jack a sharp look.
“The only way, mate. She’ll be fine. She’ll have a bit of a headache, mind you, so…” Jack paused and swallowed. “So look after her, eh?” His words were hoarse and he found he could say no more, but just then a shout went up behind them and Jack looked round to see a red-coated soldier at the crest of the hill.
Jack turned to run, but before he did Will caught his arm. “You’ll need this,” he said, pulling a pistol from his belt.
“One shot, eh?” Will nodded, but remained silent. Jack gave a rueful grin. “His Majesty’s might is almost upon us, young Turner. I’ll draw ‘em off, give you a chance to reach the Pearl. Fair winds and following seas, mate.” With that, he sprinted up the sandy path. Reaching the top of the incline, he saw that the lone redcoat had been joined by others and he yelled at them, drawing their attention away from the longboat. “Would it be a Sparrow you’re hunting today, lads? I hear ‘tis the season for ‘em!”
To a man, they levelled their guns and took aim. As the shots rang out behind him, Jack Sparrow ran, all the while wondering how long it would be before the bullets met their mark and sealed his fate at last.