Elizabeth awoke with the crack of gunfire echoing across the cliffs.
She bolted upright, clutching her hand to the dull throb at the base of her neck. The ache there, however, was nothing compared to the sickening lurch in the pit of her stomach as she felt the familiar pitch and roll beneath her. She was aboard the Pearl and they had left Jack behind. With a wretched moan she buried her face in her hands, curling her knees tight against her chest.
“Elizabeth?” Will’s gentle voice did nothing to soothe the hurt and his hand upon her shoulder was a weight, not a comfort.
“We left him, Will,” she said, her voice muffled by her hands, a sob, dry in her throat. It seemed, these days, that all the salt water in the ocean would not be enough for the tears she wished to cry. “We left him back there.”
“It was his choice, Elizabeth. There was no other way.”
“There’s always another way,” she said, as she pushed herself to her feet. Gibb’s stood at the stern, watching the island as it dwindled behind them, and she climbed the stairs to join him.
“I’m assuming that he elected to stay behind again, eh?” His eyes were fixed firmly ahead, his browed furrowed. Elizabeth made no attempt to refute the implied accusation, knowing that her words would seem empty. Shots rang out again and Elizabeth flinched with each report. Gibb’s nodded towards the island and said, “That’s some comfort, at least.”
She turned to him in confusion. What comfort was there to be had in hearing his captain shot to death? “I’m sorry?”
At last he looked her in the eye; his gaze was bitter cold. “Well, Miss Swann, as long as they’re still shooting at him, it means he ain’t been caught yet. It’s when the gunfire stops that you’ll know old Jack’s done running.”
Elizabeth ran to the rail, hardly daring to fan that small flame of hope, but all the time praying, wishing for the shots to ring out once more.
Let them keep shooting, she thought. Let him keep running.
The seconds crawled by, silence stretching them thin. Elizabeth’s breath was a knot in her chest that refused to come loose. Then the gunfire echoed once more along the Jamaican coast and Elizabeth was sprinting down the stairs to where Barbossa stood at the helm.
“Bring her about!” she shouted as all eyes turned to her in bewilderment.
“This be my ship, missy,” growled Barbossa, his expression dark, “though little good it’ll do any of us, now. And I’ll not be taking orders from a chit like you. What’s in yer head anyway, that you’d have us turn back to face certain annihilation?”
“Jack’s still alive! They haven’t caught him yet. There’s still a chance.”
Barbossa scrutinised her, his yellow eyes narrowed. Then he turned to Tia Dalma as she absently stroked the silver charm around her neck. “Is this true?” he demanded, surprising Elizabeth with his concern for Jack’s welfare.
The witch looked up, her expression sly. “Witty Jack no longer run toward death,” she purred. “Him race against it, though it bite at his heels. Jack’s journey not over. Not yet.”
“Enough!” growled Barbossa and lunged for the woman, his hand snaking out and grabbing hold of her wrist. “Enough riddles, harpy! Does he live?”
The sly smile disappeared from Tia Dalma’s face and, for a fleeting moment, was replaced by something frightening, something that spoke of a malevolence beyond Elizabeth’s comprehension. She shivered. “Him live,” hissed the woman, lips drawing back over blackened teeth. In an instant Barbossa was throwing out orders to bring the ship about and the wily grin had returned to Tia Dalma’s lips. The flame of hope in Elizabeth’s chest flickered and grew brighter. Still the gunfire echoed from the shore.
“This is insanity!” cried Will, as their course was altered. He turned to Barbossa. “Are we to lay ourselves open to Port Royal’s cannons so that you might save the man who killed you? What importance is he to you?” Will’s expression grew suspicious, his eyes flitting between the pirate and the witch. “What importance is he to either of you?”
Elizabeth’s stomach was tight with the fear that he would ask her the same question, for she had no answer to give.
“This ship and I have braved the might of the Port Royal guns before, Master Turner,” said Barbossa, ignoring Will’s last question. “The Black Pearl could lay the town to waste if need be – she has before, if you recall.”
“And are we to repeat that bloodshed here today?”
“There’ll be no need for that,” interrupted Elizabeth hurriedly, before swords were drawn.
Barbossa looked at her. “You have an alternative plan, Miss Swann?”
“Yes, take us past the fort.”
“The fort? ‘Twould be folly to venture in that direction, girl. Have you seen the height of that cliff? No matter what creature he might call himself after, Jack Sparrow can’t actually fly.”
“No,” replied Elizabeth, praying that her instincts were correct, “but he can swim.”
And so they sailed, against hope and against reason, back to Port Royal, and all the while the crack of the bullets told them that Jack had yet to be brought down. In the distance the fort came into view, the bell still clamouring the alarm; its peal seemed to resonate in time with each thud of Elizabeth’s heart. Barbossa gave orders to strike the sails and prepare the cannons, for now they could go no further.
“Saints alive, but this is a fool’s errand,” muttered Gibbs as every person on board the Pearl scanned the coastline, waiting, waiting for a glimpse of Jack. “How many times can a man cheat the reaper?”
“Every time but de last,” murmured Tia Dalma with a chuckle. If she was concerned about Jack’s survival, it did not show and, to Elizabeth, it seemed that the strange woman from the swamp already knew how this tale would end.
“He’ll make it,” Elizabeth said with conviction, brushing off the sense of unease that the witch aroused in her. She could feel Gibbs’ gaze upon her, calculating and silent, before he turned back to search the shore. And as the seconds ticked by without any sign of Jack, it seemed that Gibbs was right and that it was foolish to hope that one man could escape an entire army.
But he’s Captain Jack Sparrow….
“There!” Ragetti’s cry rang out from the crow’s nest. “There! Atop the fort!” Elizabeth’s heart stuttered and she felt it might stop dead. She ran to the rigging and hauled herself skyward that she might be afforded a clearer view.
And there he was, like the brightest star in a tar black sky. Jack Sparrow bounded towards the fort’s outermost wall, the one from which both he and Elizabeth had fallen so long ago, and the bell seemed to peal louder as if hastening him onwards. There was no pause between the report of the soldier’s rifles now, yet not a bullet met its target, for not even the best marksman could hope to strike Jack Sparrow, the man who walked between the raindrops.
As he reached the wall he didn’t slow, didn’t stop, but rather used his momentum to throw himself forward. And then he was airborne, soaring through the heavens, sunlight holding him aloft. Elizabeth wanted to cry out, to call to Barbossa and say ‘Look! Look! You were wrong! He can fly, of course he can fly!’ But her heart would not be still and her breath came thick and fast and words were impossible. Then he fell, like a gull diving toward the ocean, sleek and graceful, falling forever before piercing the water’s surface in one fluid movement, and still the bullets ricocheted around him.
“He’ll be dashed to pieces on the rocks!” cried Gibbs.
“No,” breathed Elizabeth, though she doubted anyone heard. “No, he won’t.”
No sooner had she spoken, than the surface of the water broke once more and there was Jack, swimming towards his ship and, though he was too far off for Elizabeth to make out his face, she fancied that he was grinning.
The cannon fire came then and the Black Pearl returned each volley with equal force and fury. But each shot that whistled towards them from shore fell short and it seemed, suddenly, that the angel upon the bow bore them aloft, protecting this once cursed ship, watching over her captain as each stroke of his arms brought him closer to safety.
“Throw a him a line,” called Barbossa, and a rope was cast over the side. Jack grabbed hold and he was flying once more, pulled skyward, water trailing in his wake.
Elizabeth clambered down from the rigging as he hit the deck and was by his side in an instant. Had she not caught Will’s eye at that moment, she would have thrown her arms around Jack’s neck. “You’re alive!”
He patted himself down. “No one’s more surprised than me, love.”
Elizabeth laughed, because it seemed that the Jack Sparrow she had once known was returned to them. But then he glanced at her, and she saw the shadows in his eyes still. Less dark, perhaps, but there nonetheless.
“Seems I’m not quite so ready for death as I supposed,” he said quietly, rising unsteadily to his feet. His skin was flushed and fevered, but when he turned to Barbossa he was all bluster again. “Ah, Hector, you kept me ship in one piece, I see. I’m much obliged to you for looking after the old girl. Now if you’ll be so kind, I’ll be taking back the helm.”
When Barbossa nodded silently, Jack whirled to face the rest of the crew, swaying precariously. “Well, well… Snap to, make sail, an’ all that.” With joined hands, he sketched a bow and made to leave, but then Gibbs stepped forward.
“Do we have a heading, sir?”
“Excellent question, man. If you’re lucky, you might make first mate yet,” replied Jack, eliciting a bemused expression from Gibbs. “Of course, we have a heading. For it seems that, despite me father’s best attempts to ensure otherwise, certain events are bound and determined to come to pass.” He raised a finger in emphasis. “The King’s navy and the Devil’s captain are close upon our tail, and in such circumstances, Mr. Gibbs, there’s only one course what a man worthy of the name pirate can follow. And, being as I am, in every way, worthy of the name pirate, ’tis that particular course what we’ll be following.” He tilted his head back and looked around, as if awaiting a reaction from the silent group in front of him.
“Yes, Mr Gibbs?”
“Didn’t you listen to anything I just said, mate? Set a course for Shipwreck Cove.”
“Shipwreck Cove?” The voice was Turner’s, fierce as the unnatural star that burned in the heavens. “I don’t think so, Jack.”
It was an effort to stay upright, to fight the exhaustion that threatened to topple him before his crew. But there were few things that Jack Sparrow held more dear than his reputation, and so, when he felt the cold steel against the back of his neck, he forced himself to remain still. And upright. “’Tis hardly the time and place, eh?”
“You’re wrong. It’s exactly the time and place.”
Hands raised, Jack turned around; the world turned with him and he swayed to keep from falling flat on his face. Will faced him with steely eyes, his face dark and determined. The world had already changed Will Turner, and yet destiny had still to make her claim upon him; Jack felt a sudden wash of sorrow, for Will and for them all. “Put it away, lad. I won’t fight you.”
Will didn’t lower the blade, though a flicker of uncertainty crossed his face. “Twice, I’ve saved your life, Jack. You owe me a debt, and I demand payment.”
From across the deck Barbossa snorted and when Jack caught his eye he saw a baleful glint in the man’s yellow eyes.
“A debt you say?” Jack touched the edge of the blade with his fingertip, pushing it away from his neck. “A life for a life, as it were?”
“A life for a ship.” Will's blade was still unmoving. “Take me to the Dutchman.”
Jack blinked, squinting against the blur at the edge of his vision. The pain across his back was severe, the thrill of escape taking its toll now that the danger was past. “There’s no need, mate, I swear.”
“There is a need, my duty—”
“Will!” He was too weary for anything but the truth. “The Dutchman’s on her way to the Cove too, doubt she’ll be more than a day behind us.”
Will frowned. “How do you know?”
“Because I told Beckett.” He glanced over at Elizabeth and found her watching him intently. “I told him about Shipwreck Cove, and that there’s to be a gathering there. Beckett wants us all dead, so no doubt he’ll put his best hunting dog on the scent – and that’s Jones.”
A low chuckle came from the other side of the deck. “Perhaps yer not such a half-witted curr as I’d thought, Jack Sparrow.” Barbossa strolled closer. “If Beckett commands it, Jones’ll have no choice but to sail for the Cove.”
Jack sketched a wobbly bow of acknowledgment, though his attention was fixed on Will’s blade – still levelled at his throat. If he didn’t rest soon, he was afraid he might fall upon the bloody thing. “Satisfied?”
“Why should I believe you?”
“Why should you not?”
“Will, it’s true.” Elizabeth’s hand was on his arm, moving the blade away. “He’s telling the truth, I was there.”
Reluctantly, Will lowered his weapon though he didn’t sheath it. “And what if Jones doesn’t follow Beckett’s orders?”
“And how can he refuse?” said Barbossa. “Beckett holds the heart, and he who holds the heart… Besides, he’s been summoned.”
Will’s eyes narrowed. “Summoned?”
From his pocket, Barbossa pulled his coin. It shone gold in the Caribbean sun as he danced it across his knuckles, and Jack felt a stab of loss – his own coin was gone, lost somewhere in the depths. What his father would say about that, he dared not imagine. “Summoned, we are,” Barbossa said softly. “Bound to lay our coins in the hand of the Pirate King in payment of our debt. We can sail to nowhere but Shipwreck Cove, Will Turner, and that be a fact.”
As he spoke, Barbossa tossed the coin high into the air, watching it glitter as it turned end over end and—
Will snatched the coin from the air. “Do you think I care about your debt?” he hissed. “Do you think I…?” He gasped suddenly, staggering backward, staring at the hand in which he clutched Barbossa’s coin. “I…”
“Will?” Elizabeth touched his arm. “Will, what’s the matter?”
“I can hear music…” His face was suddenly fever bright, his skin molten gold in the heat of the sun, eyes burning as he gazed toward the heavens – burning with a terrifying heat, a terrifying power. “Oh…I can feel it!” he cried. “It’s calling… I… I can’t…”
Jack cut a startled look toward Barbossa and was met with an expression that mirrored his own confusion.
Then suddenly Will’s knees buckled and his eyes rolled back in his head. “Help me!” Elizabeth cried as she held him, keeping him from falling. “Jack…!”
He took a woozy step forward, but Barbossa was faster, pushing him out of the way and helping Elizabeth ease Will to the deck. Seizing his hand, Barbossa uncurled his fingers from around the coin and quickly pocketed it.
“Will?” Elizabeth stroked the hair from his brow and Jack was forced to look sharply out across the rail. In the distance, Jamaica sat brooding upon the horizon – as doom laden a place as ever he’d sailed. He’d not thought to leave it alive, and yet here he was once more upon the Pearl - with her. He dared not examine why he’d fought for his life in the end, for fear it would rouse that shuffling darkness in the back of his mind, yet it was impossible to ignore the cold touch of fate that ran the length of his spine.
“Elizabeth?” Will roused with a start, as if from a dream.
“I’m here.” Her voice drew Jack’s gaze back to where she knelt at Will’s side, her hand upon his cheek. “What happened?”
Will shook his head, obviously trying to clear it. “I don’t know… I felt something. Something so powerful...”
Barbossa snorted. “A touch of destiny?” He glared at dawn’s concealing shadows, at the woman who lurked within them. “More than a touch, wouldn’t you say, Jack?”
“Aye, more than a touch.” But he found he couldn’t look at the tender scene before him, couldn’t think on it any more. He was weary to the bone and yearned for naught but the comfort of sea-spray in his face and the wind in his hair. “More than a touch, indeed.”
The wind sang. It always did. Its breath bore whispers of currents and tides, of the shifting of the earth and the sea; every roar and every sigh held a melody that few could hear and even fewer could understand. Upon the uppermost ridge of Shipwreck Cove stood Morgan Teague, a man who could both hear and understand. The wind sang to him.
And there, beneath the ever present zephyr music, was the Song. Teague closed his eyes and listened; there was something new to be heard here. And something old.
The bell has been raised from its watery grave…
The bell must ring, Musician. The bell must ring…
Aye, the bell must ring, true enough. But not by his hand.
Do you hear its sepulchral tone?
Not by his hand… “Then whose?” asked Teague, his words barely audible over the strange cadence of the wind. The question was not rhetorical and Teague listened again.
The bell will ring again, Musician. He comes. Drawn by a call he does not understand, he comes now.
And suddenly, through the spin of the earth, Morgan Teague felt a shift; the words written upon the cavern wall cried out in triumph and he knew that one more piece had fallen into place. For he was on his way, borne by the wind and the sea, and the bell once again would ring by his hand.
He comes now.
Jack kept to himself for the rest of the morning, climbing onto the bowsprit and stretching out on his belly as though he were spotting dolphins on the bow wave.
From the forecastle, where she dozed among memories of her father, Elizabeth could watch him without attracting Will’s ire. He’d taken the helm once he’d recovered from his strange vision and, standing there beneath the brilliant sun, he looked every inch the pirate she had known him to be from the first day they met. He was everything she’d imagined, and yet… And yet Jack Sparrow, so vivid and wild, called to her in ways she’d never imagined, could never have anticipated or dreamed that she wanted. And yet, and yet…
A soft booted footfall disturbed her thoughts and she glanced down to see Barbossa approach the bow. The Pearl was clipping along nicely and the feathers on his ridiculous hat danced like flames in a draft. He stopped and considered Jack for a while, and from her position on the forecastle Elizabeth watched the speculation shift across his dangerous old face.
Eventually, he spoke. “I can’t help but notice, Jack, that you’ve returned from the Locker without an item of some importance.”
“Is that right?” Jack didn’t turn around, just lifted a hand and splayed his fingers as if toying with the sea breeze.
Barbossa frowned, growing irritable. Or nervous, perhaps? “Do you know where it is?”
“Nope.” Jack’s arm dropped, hanging straight down; his shirt sleeve whipped and fluttered like a badly set sail. “No idea, mate, and even less interest, given me personal stake in the matter.”
Barbossa stepped forward, his grizzled features all lines and crevasses in the sunlight. “Can’t escape fate, Jack. No matter what you say.”
“Can’t I?” He did move then, turning stiffly and without his usual grace. The back of his shirt, Elizabeth noticed, was spotted with blood. “I’ve tasted eternity once, and didn’t much care for the flavour.”
“You’ve no choice, Jack. Neither have I. The Court is convened – you must present the coin.”
For a moment Jack seemed undecided, then, carefully, he made his way down to the deck, landing lightly and with a grimace. “Except, I don’t have the coin, do I?” He touched his head where his beads used to hang above his eye. “Not seen it since— Since the Kraken.”
Barbossa’s face grew dark, and suddenly Elizabeth saw a line anchoring these two men together – enemies, yes, but beneath that something deeper. Brothers. “Without all the coins, the debt cannot be paid.”
“So they say.”
“You’re a fool to doubt it, Jack. A bloody fool.”
“Always was.” He drew closer. “Look, my way of seeing it is this; Jones will never surrender his coin, so the debt will never be paid. What’s the point of getting all hot and bothered about some scratchings on the wall?”
“You’re right,” Barbossa said. “Jones will never surrender his coin, that’s why the Dutchman needs a new captain.” His gaze darted aft, toward the helm.
Jack’s eyes widened. “Bootstrap’s boy?”
“Bound and determined to stab Jones’ heart and avenge his father. I say we let him.”
But Jack shook his head. “He won’t do it, not when he realises what it means for him ‘n’ his dolly-bird.”
“Then what say we don’t point that out?”
Elizabeth felt her heart racing, straining her ears to hear their low conversation.
“Doesn’t matter anyway,” said Jack. “I still don’t have me piece of eight.”
Barbossa sighed. “Are ye sure ye didn’t pass it on, Jack?”
“To who? The Kraken?”
“Don’t be—” He stopped, suddenly. “Ah… Yes. Now that makes sense.”
Barbossa grinned like the devil. “Clause three, Jack. D’ye not remember?” His smile was all teeth. “He what kills a Pirate Lord, becomes a Pirate Lord. That’s why the coin left you.”
Jack hesitated. “But I’m not dead.”
“Ye passed beyond the mortal world. I think that counts.”
“Wait.” Jack lifted a hand; his face looked grey, ashy in the sunlight. “You’re not making any sense. Are you saying the Kraken is a Pirate Lord?”
Barbossa snorted. “The Kraken? Did you leave your head in the Locker, Jack?” His gaze lifted to the forecastle, and Elizabeth shrank lower. “Was it not the hand of Miss Swann what condemned ye?”
“Elizabeth…?” If anything, his face grew paler. “No, can’t be right. She didn’t take the coin, she knows nothing about any of it.”
“Maybe not,” Barbossa said. “But she heard the Song loud enough.”
A strange expression crossed Jack’s face, half relief and half outrage. “Elizabeth heard the Song?”
“Aye, came askin’ who was makin’ all the wretched noise.”
“So she…? ” He made a sound which might have been a laugh. “She took that from me too, then?”
“Witty Jack still de same as he ever was.” Tia Dalma detached herself from the stark midday shadows, coming to stand at Barbossa’s side. “Wit’ de coin or wit’ out, him fate remain de same.”
“Is that supposed to be a comfort?”
Her gaze drifted between the two pirates. “De world not ready for men who return from de grave, hmm?”
Heart racing where she sat hidden, Elizabeth’s fingers dipped into her coat pocket and curled around the beads she kept there. Jack’s silver piece of eight thrummed warm between her fingers.
Tia Dalma reached out, placing her hand upon Jack’s chest. “De fever burn,” she said, and Elizabeth watched breathlessly as the woman’s fingers curled lightly across his throat. “Come wit’ me.”
Stepping back, Jack held up his hand. “Had enough of your potions, love. I—”
“If you wish to face your father on your feet, you’ll come wit’ me. Else you’ll be carried from de boat like a chil’.”
Jack bristled. “It’s a ‘ship’, love. A ship.”
Tia Dalma smiled. “Come, den,” she said, hips swaying as she walked. And at the last moment her gaze lifted and lanced directly into Elizabeth. “Come to de cabin.”
It took half an hour before Elizabeth decided to answer Tia Dalma’s strange summons, and even then she slipped into the Great Cabin silently, without knocking.
Inside, the air was thick with the woody scent of incense; it reminded Elizabeth of the cold horror of the little shack in the swamp, her guilt fresh and bitter. Daylight streamed through the wide, beautiful windows that curved around the stern of the Pearl and she was struck by the elegance of the cabin. Under Barbossa’s command it had felt claustrophobic and dark, now it was full of golden light that shimmered through the aromatic air.
Jack himself lay, stripped to the waist, upon his wide bunk, eyes closed and his back coated in some muddy substance that looked as if it might have emerged from Tia Dalma’s swamp. Elizabeth wrinkled her nose.
“To keep de pestilence away, and stem de fever.” Tia Dalma’s voice was soft, close to her ear.
“Will he be well?”
“It not him body dat suffer most,” Tia Dalma said, with a sadness that seemed as old as the world. “Him mind and him heart in pieces, now.”
In her pocket, the coin began to whisper its song and Elizabeth closed her fingers around it, as if to silence it. “Am I to return the coin to him?” she asked. “Is that why I’m here?”
Tia Dalma smiled. “You can try.” She took Elizabeth’s hand and pressed a soft, damp cloth into it. “Clean him wounds; your touch work magic, hmm?”
She frowned, flustered. “I don’t know what you mean.”
“What? ” she clucked. “Elizabeth Swann don’t know de taste of a lover’s kiss?” Her grin spread wide over blackened teeth. “Or perhaps she too afraid to take any pleasure in it, hmm?”
She snatched the cloth from Tia Dalma’s hand. “I love Will,” she hissed. “I’m going to marry Will.”
The witch-woman pressed her fingers, strangely soft, to Elizabeth’s chest. “De sea rage in your heart, girl – harsh an’ changin’, untameable. Like all women.” Her gaze grew wistful, drifting toward Jack who still lay sleeping. “Even de bravest rocks break in de end, dey cannot stand against de power of de sea.” Her inky gaze was serious now, secretive as she dug the tips of her fingers into the scant flesh of Elizabeth’s breastbone. “But none so dangerous as a man betrayed, a man who seek to live him life wit’out him heart.”
Elizabeth knew it was meant as a warning, but strangely it was James’ forgiving gaze that drifted into her mind. “Not all men are the same,” she said, wrapping her fingers around Tia Dalma’s hand and lifting it free. “Some men can forgive even the deepest betrayal.”
“Den perhaps dey do not truly love?”
For a moment she doubted herself; there was something so ancient in Tia Dalma’s eyes, something that brooked no denial. Elizabeth knew herself to be a child next to this woman, and yet somehow she also knew that she was right. “The greatest love is selfless is it not? It requires nothing in return.”
“All love require sometin’ in return.” Her arms folded across her chest. “Dat is how man bind woman, in bonds of duty and obligation.”
Elizabeth shook her head. “You’re wrong,” she said quietly. “A truly good man would never bind the one he loved, rather he would give his life to set her free.”
“Child,” Tia Dalma said, eyes flashing in defiance. “What know you of de nature of man?”
Elizabeth smiled, thinking of her father and of Will, then of Beckett and of Mercer. “I know that some are wholeheartedly good, while others are pitiless and cruel.” Her eyes drifted to Jack, her mind sketching a picture of James, drunken and angry, among the crew of the Pearl. “But most, I think, are pulled between the two – much as we are.”
Tia Dalma crowed as if triumphant. “An’ how easy for de good man to become de wicked man, hmm? You will see, chil’. You will see how a good man become heartless when him heart belong to another soul. Will it be Jack Sparrow, or Will Turner, hmm? Which one of dese ‘good men’ will bind you to der own fate in de end?”
“Perhaps it will be neither,” Elizabeth said, folding the cloth in her hands. “Perhaps I will forge my own fate.”
“We shall see,” Tia Dalma smiled. “We shall see, hmm?”
Saying no more, she turned and left the cabin; it took a moment for the air to still in the wake of her departure, and Elizabeth found herself standing quiet until the eddies of their conversation had settled.
Then she turned to where Jack lay sleeping. Now that she was free of Tia Dalma’s inquisitive eyes, she studied him more closely. He lay on his stomach, one arm dangling over the side of the bed and his fingertips brushing the floor. All kinds of tattoos curled about his arm, bunching over sharp lines of sinew and bone. Whatever it was Tia Dalma had used to dress his wounds covered most of his back, but his face seemed to have more colour and a sheen of sweat gilded his shoulders and brow. The fever had broken.
Elizabeth folded and refolded the cloth in her hand, unwilling to repeat the dressing of Jack’s wounds; the memories of his pain in the gaol cell were still forbidding. But it was more than simply squeamish fear, for despite her concern at causing more pain, she couldn’t deny the fluttering fascination she felt at the sight of him. It was wrong, of course, to feel any such thing for a man not her fiancé. But nonetheless it was there and, if she was honest, the feeling was not unfamiliar. How it had plagued her in the days before the Kraken’s attack! And wasn’t its indulgence at the very root of her betrayal? For had she not, in that Judas kiss, managed to both slake her lust and drown her bitter guilt?
Except Jack had returned, and with him every impulse – every desire – she had thought condemned to the depths.
Part of her wanted to run, to hide from the heat and the forbidden longing he ignited, but Jack’s coin thrummed in her pocket and she knew she had a greater duty than the easing of her heart’s confusion. If what Barbossa said was true, and her betrayal of Jack had cost him some kind of birthright, then she was duty bound to return it.
Steeling herself, she moved closer to the bed and sat down on its edge. Jack didn’t stir. Carefully, alive to both the impropriety and the thrill of it, Elizabeth reached out to touch the curve of his bare shoulder. “Jack?”
There was no response, just the steady rise and fall of his shoulders, and the heady scent of the poultice. Perhaps Tia Dalma had given him something to ease the pain, to help him sleep.
And perhaps it was for the best that he sleep through another cleansing of his wounds. Taking a steadying breath, she began to wipe the cloth across one shoulder blade. The balm came away easily and underneath…
Underneath was smooth, inked skin. Folding the cloth over, she wiped away some more. But again, the skin beneath was healed.
Your touch work magic…
Carefully, and in a few moments, it was done. The cloth sat blackened upon the table, but all that remained of Jack’s injuries were muted scars that crisscrossed his back like an echo of the lash. Between them, close written words tumbled across his shoulders and down his spine, whirling in exotic patterns.
Almost before she knew what she was doing, Elizabeth stretched out a finger to touch that impossibly healed skin. He felt warm, supple beneath her touch. The words danced away, across his back, and her fingers followed them in slow, inevitable circles over muscle and bone.
She had never touched a man so, never known the thrill of feeling such strength and beauty beneath her fingertips. She’d never—
Jack sighed, a deep, relaxed sigh that seemed to come from the tips of his toes. “God, love,” he breathed, “you always did have the softest hands in the whole bloody swamp.”
Elizabeth froze, her fingers resting on his back.
“Don’t stop,” he murmured drowsily. “Could lie here all day.”
For a wild moment she imagined running her fingers across the taut muscles of his back, his shoulders, perhaps leaning down to press her lips to—
She jerked her hands free. “It’s me.” She hated the childish squeak that came out in lieu of Tia Dalma’s sensuous drawl.
Jack started, rolled half over and stared. “It’s you!”
“I was—” She indicated feebly at the cloth, feeling herself blush furiously. “Tia Dalma asked me to clean…” And then the wonder returned, banishing her more confusing feelings. “Jack, your back… It’s healed.”
He was still staring, something deep in his eyes sparking like kindling. “Yes,” he said, his gaze dropping to her hands where they twisted together in her lap. A flicker of his tongue wet his lips. “Healed.”
“There are more things in heaven and earth, Lizzie…” He moved then, sitting up and eyeing her with open suspicion. “More to Tia Dalma, too, than what meets the eye.”
It was far from impossible, she supposed, given all she had witnessed over the past year… As if nudged by the thought, the coin hummed softly and she slipped her hand into her pocket; it felt unnaturally warm to the touch. Standing, she paced to the far side of the cabin and, when she turned back around, Jack was on his feet. She wished he would put on a shirt.
“I assume,” he said carefully, “that you’ve not come to play nursemaid.”
“Then what?” He strolled to the large table that, in Barbossa’s day, had been filled with food he could not eat. Now, it was covered in charts and almanacs, logs and discarded quills. A bottle of rum stood to one side and Jack picked it up, examined it briefly, and took a long drink. Her eyes, it seemed, were drawn inexorably to the movement of his throat as he swallowed…
Lust slaked, guilt drowned.
She looked quickly away and said, “I believe I have something of yours.”
The bottle was returned with a soft thump to the table top. “And what do you believe it to be?” He was cautious, restrained; Elizabeth looked at him again and that kindling light was back in his eyes. Could it be hope she saw there, tender as a new flame?
From her pocked she pulled the beads, dangling them from her fingers as the coin caught the morning sunlight. “This.”
His eyes turned flat and dark, like pitch. “Where did you get that?”
“I found it. On the shore in Haiti, about a month after you… After.”
Jack took a step closer, but made no move to take the coin. “Interesting,” he said, though he sounded more disturbed than fascinated.
“I’ve no desire to be any kind of Pirate Lord, Jack. No desire to steal your birthright … It’s yours, take it.”
“No birthright,” he said, turning his eyes on her again. “Least, not if you listen to me father.”
Jack smiled, sly and knowing. "I do have one, you know. Didn't spring fully formed from the surf."
"I didn't—" Stupidly, she felt herself flush. The truth was, she'd never conceived of Jack as a child, or as anything other than what he seemed right now; a pirate and a rogue, a trickster. Her heart turned over, sickly with the thought that Jack's father might have heard tell of his death - that her actions that day could have spread so far, could have hurt those whose existence she'd never even imagined. Swallowing the emotion, she lifted her chin. “Did you steal it from him, then?”
Jack turned away, circling the table and returning to the rum. “Weren’t me father’s to steal, Lizzie. ’Twas passed on, in fact, by a very old friend - very old, as it turns out. Wanted me to have it, he did, and knew me father wouldn’t approve. That’s why I took it, see? To please him, and to piss in me father’s rum – so to speak.”
“So, you want it back?” She held the coin out to him. “Take it.”
He backed away a step. “Not so sure I do, love, now it comes to it.”
Jack said nothing for a moment, fingers toying with the edge of one of his charts. “What do you know of the Brethren of the Coast, Lizzie?”
“They’re a loose band of Caribbean pirates, pooling loot and safe havens?” She frowned, recalling what she had read on the subject. “Henry Morgan, I think, began it.”
“Not quite.” Jack’s smile was opaque and fleeting. “Morgan set down the Code, right enough, but the Brethren came into existence almost two hundred years ago. And for a dark purpose, Lizzie. Dark and foolish.”
Despite the morning light, it seemed that the cabin dimmed; a cloud, perhaps, had passed across the sun. “What purpose?”
“The binding of a goddess,” he said softly. “The shackling of her power. Wherever we will, we’ll roam, eh?”
From the song, the one that hummed constantly beneath the surface of her mind. “And the coins have something to do with that?”
“So say old men and fools - my father among them.” He sauntered across the cabin to lift the lid on a small trunk, beginning to rummage. “Problem is, the tyranny of man is upon us – courtesy of our friend, Cutler Beckett; the Song has been sung, Elizabeth, and there’s a debt to be settled.”
Her heart began to pound, a slow rhythm like the beat of war drums. “Settled how?”
Jack straightened, a clean shirt in his hand and a gallows smile upon his lips. “Well that, love, depends entirely on who you believe.”
Continued in Chapter Twelve