The Black Pearl was the only ship in Shipwreck Cove who did not sail to war with the Brethren of the Coast.
From the deck of the Ikazuchi, Kasumi watched her pass to starboard. Her black sails were deliberately set askew, the yards cock-billed in mourning, and the ensign trailed slackly over her stern; the Pearl’s crew stood upon the deck, heads bowed, and refused to sail so soon after the loss of their captain. Kazumi could not condemn them, for she felt it too, this weight of sadness, and Jack Sparrow had been but a fleeting visitor in her life. Nonetheless, she thought, the world was a darker place for his passing.
Kasumi nodded to her Shoi and a single cannon fired a salute, emulating each of the eight other Brethren ships that had already passed the Pearl and been swallowed by the maelstrom of the Throat.
With no more attention to spare Jack Sparrow’s mourning crew, Kasumi peered up through the rain and cursed the goddess for sending this storm to plague them. The clouds were black and a sickly yellow rim skirted the edges of the storm, promising disaster. Rage, Kasumi thought. Rage as felt only by a woman who has been bound, for too long, to do the bidding of men. She flexed her hand about the hilt of her weapon. If this was the salvation for which Jack Sparrow had died, she feared he would have served them better had he put the might of his thirty-two canon at their service instead.
“Kaigun Taisho…” Her lieutenant drew her attention with a nod toward the roaring waters ahead. “On your order.”
Kasumi indicated her agreement. “Be ready to return fire as soon as we are clear of the passage,” she said, moving aside to give her helmsman room. “Today, we fight to the death. And unless we are sharp, Kaigun Shosho, it will be our deaths to which we fight.”
The crew of the Ikazuchi did not need to be told twice.
They flew against the wind, against logic and against reason. The Pirate Lords of Shipwreck Cove rode forth with colours blazing, into a battle whose inevitable end almost seemed foretold . From the mouth of their rocky fortress they sailed, and faced their foes, fearless and steadfast, though they could never hope to match the assembled might of the fleet that lay in wait. It would come down to numbers in the end, that much was certain, and yet here they were, these vile, dissolute creatures, prepared to die for a cause.
James Norrington stood upon the quarterdeck of the H.M.S. Endeavour, watching the pirate ships take position in the distance, and wondered where this path would take him. Overhead, heavy clouds rolled in and the wind picked up, driving the rain down in sheets.
“Do you think they realise?” said a voice at his ear. He turned to find Frederick Mercer at his elbow. “Do you think they know what’s to come?”
“I think they know full well, Mr Mercer,” Norrington replied, struggling to keep the contempt from his tone. “That is why they have chosen to fight.”
“Idiots, the lot of ’em,” he said with a malevolent smirk. “What prize will they claim at the end of it, eh?”
Norrington was sure he knew the answer, but he refrained from voicing it. Across the water, the ships dipped and swayed with each swell of the ocean, like wild horses chained against their will. He noted, with some measure of disquiet, that one ship was conspicuously absent from their number. Had Sparrow shown his colours at last then, and refused to join the pirates for this battle? One year ago Commodore James Norrington would have happily believed that to be the case, would have felt justified in assuming Jack Sparrow to be a traitorous villain, and a coward with it. But Norrington was no longer that man and he had seen enough of true villainy these recent months to know its face well. If the Black Pearl did not join the Brethren fleet there must be a reason for it. Norrington contemplated the possibility that there was some strategy behind the ship’s absence.
“We should strike first,” he said. “Gain control and end this before they do anything rash. There needn’t be any unnecessary bloodshed here today.” He took a step toward the stairs, but a hand on his arm stopped his progress.
“Where d’you think you’re going?” asked Mercer.
“To alert Lord Beckett, of course. He must give the command to strike,” replied Norrington, puzzled.
Mercer narrowed his eyes. “We strike, Admiral. Smash the bastards into kindling. You have my command.”
“I said you have my command.” His lips thinned. “Rest assured His Lordship will agree with me.”
And so Norrington called all hands to quarters and readied the ship in preparation for the assault. His orders, though, were perfunctory, delivered without the zeal he once felt when sailing into battle. Overhead, thunder rolled, and as the first crack of lightning illuminated the seascape, Admiral James Norrington realised that the opportune moment had at last arrived.
From the assembled lines of pirate ships, he watched as an elegant brigantine dropped her canvas and broke rank to engage them. Overhead, the storm unleashed her full fury as the first cannon fire rang out and the battle began.
“The wind’s against us!” Will yelled, struggling to make himself heard over the lash of the storm. “How will we ever—?”
Barbossa pushed past, wiping rain and sea-spray from his face. “Helm a-lee!” he yelled, squinting up at the glowering skies. “Let go the lee-anchor!”
The Queen Ann lurched, the rain-slick deck treacherous beneath Will’s feet, and he had to grab the rail to keep from falling. The very seams of the ship groaned as she strained against the anchor, a subtle counterpoint to the boom of the huge seas and the screech of the wind “Barbossa, I—!” A wave hit him, knocked his feet from under him, and only his utter refusal to let go of the rail kept him from being washed overboard.
“Bring her head up to the wind!” Barbossa yelled, closer than Will had expected. A gnarled hand grabbed his arm, hauling him to his feet. “And cut the anchor cable!” Barbossa grinned suddenly, a yellow snarl into the teeth of the storm. “Club hauled her, we have. We’ll get you to the Endeavour yet!”
Shaking hair and water from his eyes, Will peered through the rain toward the ranks of the enemy. It was too dark to see colours, but he recognised Beckett’s ship from her arrogant lines. A ship built for domination and tyranny; he smiled to think of her power crushed, of her splintered hull sent to the depths where she belonged.
Unconsciously he reached for the knife in his belt, the ivory handle slick beneath his touch. It wasn’t only his father he was freeing, he realised, and wondered how Teague could have tried to keep him from this path.
“Treacherous whore,” Barbossa muttered beneath his breath, glaring out into the storm. “Is this how you reward those who freed you?”
On her new heading, the Queen Ann slammed hard against the waves and made little headway against the storm. But the Dutchman… With the wind at her back she was cutting a fast course along the length of the enemy line, heading directly for the Throat. In horror, Will seized Barbossa’s arm. “If she passes through…”
“I see her,” Barbossa snarled. Then shouted, “Haul about the after-sails! Brace the head-sails!”
“We’ll never catch her!” Will yelled. “We’ll never—”
Suddenly, like a candle snuffed, the wind dropped. Silence rang so loud Will had to shake it from his ears as all about him sails fell slack, tack and lines clinking limply together. Barbossa stood as still as his ship, face caught between rage and astonishment, eyes lifted skyward. Will followed his gaze and it was as if he looked up from the pit of a maelstrom toward the wide blue sky, far above. And then a breeze whispered against the hair on the back of his neck, the rigging jingled and—
“By the Powers, I never doubted you!” Barbossa cried as the wind slammed into them, full abaft. “All hands to quarters! Sling the top-sail yards half mast and stopper the top-sail sheets. Man the guns!” He grinned as the ship leapt forward, waving a hand toward the Dutchman who was wallowing now in heavy seas, the wind abruptly against her. “She’s in irons, lad! And the chase is on!”
But the Dutchman was no ordinary ship and it was not long that the storm held her at bay. Her triple guns boomed through the howling wind, the shrieks of men and splintering hulls a gruesome accompaniment to her victories as she bore down upon the ranks of the Brethren – and toward the Throat. And Teague.
“We’ll never catch her, even with the wind behind us!” Will shouted. “Let me—”
“We cannot let her pass!” Barbossa growled, pushing past Will toward the helm. “If Jones—”
Will grabbed his arm, halting him. “We can’t catch her,” he said, fixing Barbossa with a look the old pirate couldn’t ignore. He drew his knife. “But get me to the Endeavour, and we won’t have to. Will we?”
Barbossa’s eyes narrowed. “Those are long odds, boy, with the Dutchman already at the gates.”
“I know. But they’re the only odds we have.”
After a tense moment, Barbossa nodded. “Very well, then—”
“Sail ho!” The cry rang out from a sailor high in the rigging, his arm lifted and pointing toward the Throat.
Will ran to the rail, straining to see through the storm. “I don’t—” And then it seemed, for an instant, that the sun broke through the clouds and a spear of light cast a ship in stark relief. Black against a glittering sea, she charged from the Throat with the wind at her back and came broadside to the Dutchman, blasting three decks of guns in a cacophony of destruction. But it wasn’t the cannon that drew the astonished attention of the Queen Ann’s crew, it was the ship’s black sails.
“Bloody hell, it’s the Pearl!” someone shouted from aloft. “It’s the Black bloody Pearl!”
At her helm stood the Pirate King, hair golden and face fierce as the midday sun. While, braced upon the top yard, hair whipping about his face, stood—
“It’s not possible!” Barbossa breathed, wide-eyed with shock.
Will found himself grinning. “Not probable!”
But nevertheless it was, unquestionably, true. Captain Jack Sparrow was back. And the battle was not over.
“Gibbs!” The captain’s shout cut through the storm as he flew down the rigging, almost as fast as his namesake – or a phantom. Gibbs wasn’t yet convinced that Jack was no ghost, so strange had been his return.
But phantom or not, Gibbs’ grinned as Jack Sparrow darted up the quarterdeck steps toward the helm. His hair and clothes – strange clothes, not his customary coat – were drenched through, though his eyes sparked fire and life and Gibbs thought he had never seemed more the legend than now, upon this rain-soaked deck. “Aye, Captain?”
“Set a course for the Endeavour,” he said, tightening the knot that kept the black scarf about his head and his strange, loose hair from his eyes.
“But Jack, surely the Dutchman is—?”
A sly grin and the flexing of fingers, as if searching for a weapon. “Don’t worry, mate, Jones will follow. What business has he in the Cove, when the man he wants to kill is standing right here?”
“And what business have we upon the Endeavour?” Gibbs protested, casting a sideways glance at the girl – or King, as she called herself. He’d do nothing by her order, though, King or not, she who’d sent Jack to the depths. Twice. “The Pearl is faster, Jack. Let these others do for Jones while we—”
“Run away?” There was no scorn in Jack’s tone, no playfulness either. More a steady kind of consideration Gibbs was unused to seeing in his wayward captain. “But to what point and purpose, eh? To fight another day? There’ll never be a better day than this, Mister Gibbs.”
“For what?” Gibbs muttered, suddenly sour. “To die? Again.”
But Jack smiled, his whole face alive. So very alive! “I’m done with death, mate.” And his gaze slipped slyly toward the girl who stood with one hand upon a ratline, leaning out into the teeth of the storm. “And today is a good day to win. Savvy?”
“Win?” Gibbs peered through the rain at the vast fleet of the enemy. Then he shrugged. “Aye, why not? The Endeavour it is!”
With that, he spun the wheel and his captain whooped fierce approval.
“The Black Pearl.” Beckett’s tone was more clipped than usual, his milky face flushed in the sheeting rain. “It’s clearly the Black Pearl.”
He passed the glass to Norrington, who lifted it without comment to his eye. There was no doubt about it, the ship racing ahead of the pirate line, heading right toward them, was indeed the Black Pearl. But more than that, he could see Elizabeth upon the deck and at her side… “Sparrow.”
“So it would seem.”
Taking a moment to compose himself, to keep his surge of fear and excitement firmly concealed, Norrington lowered the glass. Mercer stood close by, apparently fascinated by the approaching ship; Norrington had no doubt that he was listening. He’d never liked the man, rough-spoken upstart that he was, but now he feared him; Mercer held some sway over Beckett and that spelled trouble for them all. “Jones was wrong, then,” he said, addressing the comment to Beckett. “He said Jack was dead.”
Something that might have been a smile toyed with Beckett’s lips. “Jones appears to suffer from a perennial optimism when it comes to the fate of Jack Sparrow.” He turned abruptly and smiled, a cold controlled expression. “By Jones’ reckoning, he’s been dead at least twice.”
“I imagine, sir,” said Mercer, not taking his eyes from the enemy, “that you’ll be finishing the job yourself. Sticking your blade into Sparrow, as it were, before he does the same to you.”
Beckett flinched, his jaw tightening. Norrington saw it, but didn’t entirely understand the cause. It was hard to imagine what history Beckett could have with Sparrow, or how their paths might have crossed. Still, he remembered the heated glee with which Beckett had seen Sparrow punished in the Port Royal gaol and it gave him pause…
“It is certainly my intention,” Beckett said sharply, “to see Sparrow dead by the end of the day.”
“Looks like you’ll have your chance then,” Mercer said, turning to face them at last. “Sparrow’s on his way. Maybe he has a score to settle.”
Norrington’s gaze returned to the Pearl, bearing down on them with unnatural speed now the wind had changed in her favour. Not just Sparrow, he thought, his eyes caught by the gold of Elizabeth’s hair – so beautiful, such a fine woman. What did she mean by coming here, like this? Did she mean to fight? To take up arms against the King’s navy? Had her father’s murder driven her so far…?
“Not just Sparrow…”
Norrington started at hearing his own thought echoed, and saw Beckett pointing – but not at the Pearl. Another ship seemed to be racing the Pearl, not far off her stern. It was the same brigantine he’d noticed earlier, attempting to intercept the Dutchman, and he could only guess at her purpose.
“They mean to board us!” Mercer suddenly sounded afraid, taking a step back toward the great cabin.
“Of course.” Beckett’s smile was bleakly smug. “They know the heart is here.”
“How can they know?”
Beckett slid him a withering look. “They’re pirates?”
Norrington said nothing, his gaze fixed on Mercer’s left hand that was clutched over the leather pouch that hung from his belt. Was it possible…?
“Admiral?” Beckett was looking at him through narrowed eyes.
“Defend the ship. If they take the heart, all is lost.”
Norrington nodded, but said nothing. He couldn’t help feeling – knowing – that all was already lost, that it had been from the moment he’d set Jones’ beating heart into the hands of the devil. But he wondered, now, if his honour – and more – could be reclaimed.
James Norrington drew his sword.
“What the—?” Beckett lifted an eyebrow. “Admiral, what do you think you’re doing?”
He smiled and took a step forward. “Defending the ship. Sir.”
“Just get me close enough to board!” the boy yelled from the rail, a rope wrapped tight about his hand. He was young and strong, and as foolish as only the young and the dead can afford to be.
Barbossa cursed as he fought the helm. “You’ll not last long enough to see the Locker if you miss in these seas…”
Will flashed him a smile. “Then it’s as well that I won’t miss! Now, closer!”
The prow dipped and surged, spray drenching them anew as their course took them no more than yards from the Endeavour’s leeward side. The Pearl, he saw, was already board-a-board, even in these seas. Fine ship. Fine captain, though none would hear it from his lips. “Make ready!” he yelled at the boy. “Go now! Now!”
The boy took flight, soaring through the storm amid a hail of shot from the navy men. Whether he made it in once piece, Barbossa could not tell. And he had no time to look.
“Fire all!” he bellowed and felt the deck shudder as the guns fired. “Come about! Come about for a second pass!”
The fate of Davy Jones might lie in Will Turner’s hands, but Barbossa would be damned to the Locker if he went out without a fight.
Jack Sparrow landed in a low crouch, weapon drawn. Elizabeth was to his right, slightly behind; he could hear the whisper of her blade being drawn and the catch of breath in her throat. He understood why; Mercer, the man who had murdered her father, stood on the other side of the deck.
Jack put out a hand, warning caution as he walked forward. Two men stood between them and Mercer, two familiar men in a curious situation. The Commodore – former Commodore – stood with his sword levelled at Beckett’s chest, and Beckett… Jack recognised the look of surprised betrayal in the man’s eyes, and it provoked an unexpected pang of guilt.
It’s just business, mate. But of course it hadn’t been, not for Beckett; a Letter of Marque, signed and sealed, would not have been traded so cheap in a fair market.
Jack hissed and flapped a hand to silence her, but it was too late. Elizabeth had broken the spell. Norrington turned, thin lipped with tension. “Elizabeth! Get back aboard your ship, it’s not safe here.”
The Endeavour’s guns thundered, wood splintered and Jack winced as the Pearl moaned in protest.
“It’s hardly any safer aboard the Pearl,” Elizabeth said. “And besides, I’m here for a purpose.”
“What purpose could you—?”
“Pardon the interruption, Admiral.” Not lowering his weapon, Jack drew closer. He glanced at Beckett. “M’Lord. I think you know why we’re here…” He held out his hand. “Jones’ heart. Hand it over.”
Beckett made no answer, though his pale eyes spat venom. And for a moment Jack thought he could see a shuffling black figure haunting the man, crouching in the darkness of his shadow. He knew it for what it was now, that corrosive visitor; it was hate and resentment, the wounded soul of a man betrayed. A phantom given form by the Locker, yes, but a burden he’d carried since Barbossa first marooned him upon that wretched spit of land. He wondered how long Cutler Beckett had kept company with his own bleak spirit, and thought perhaps he knew the answer.
“Arrest him!” Beckett snapped suddenly, but none leaped to obey him. In fact no one moved at all. Interesting….
And then something slammed hard into the deck behind him and Jack spun about, reaching for his gun before he recognised the newcomer. “William Turner!” he exclaimed. “There you bloody are! Was wondering when you’d show up, mate. You almost missed the party.”
“You’re looking less dead than expected,” Will said, failing to hide a smile.
“Teague didn’t see that one coming, eh?” He flashed the lad a grin, though couldn’t keep from glancing at Elizabeth. Her attention, however, was fixed on Mercer. And Mercer was watching them all with a cold calculation that wiped the smile from Jack’s face. Down to business…
“So here we all are,” Jack said, taking a step closer and lifting his sword to touch Norrington’s. “Time to choose sides, mate. Them or us. Freedom or tyranny.”
There was a silence. Norrington didn’t move, didn’t flinch, his gaze penetrating and not a little unnerving. When at last he spoke, his voice was calm and measured. “I will have no truck with pirates, Sparrow. I have devoted my career to his Majesty’s Service and I will protect the honour and reputation of the King’s navy.”
Jack’s gaze darted to Beckett and he saw the triumph in the man’s eyes. Drawing back, Jack levelled his sword. Behind him, he sensed Elizabeth draw closer and heard the steel song of Will’s blade being drawn.
But Norrington was not finished. “To that end,” he said, “I was once told, by a wise man and a good friend that, on the rare occasion that pursuing the right course demands an act of piracy, piracy itself can be the right course.” His sword arm shot out, aiming the blade once more at Beckett. “I believe that this might be just such an occasion.”
“James!” But Elizabeth’s warning came too late, the hilt of Mercer’s sword slammed into Norrington’s face and dropped him to the deck.
Above them, thunder cracked and everything was suddenly chaos.