Stroke. Stroke. Stroke. The motion was calming and his racing heart began to slow, hammering in time with the oars. Stroke. Stroke. Stroke. He watched the Endeavour come about, listing but proud as her sails filled – a fitting ship for Norrington, in the end.
Behind him, Jack knew the Pearl approached. He imagined she looked splendid in this strange and sudden sunlight, though he didn’t turn to look for fear of seeing sorrow in the faces of his crew. How many had been lost? And did they know what had become of Elizabeth? He would know the instant he saw old Gibbs’ face, and put off the moment as long as possible. Until he knew for sure, she still lived and he would contemplate no other fate. Although he couldn’t help but ponder this strange situation in which another’s life meant more to him than his own, and wondered how long a man could survive with his own heart running about, as it were, in the keep of a woman who took as much delight as he in tweaking the nose of a storm.
“It’s the Captain!” came Ragetti’s excited cry from the deck, and Jack rested the oars, allowing the longboat to drift until she bumped the Pearl’s black hull. He lifted a hand to it, touched her and smiled despite his brooding, breathless fear.
“Told you I’d be back,” he whispered, reaching up and hauling himself onto the ladder. He stayed there a moment, trying to brace himself for what was to come, but then realised that no amount of bracing would keep her loss from shattering him and he decided to face it anyway. In a moment, he stood upon the deck and winced slightly at the debris of broken yards and spars, and at the gaping hole in the portside rail.
And then Gibbs was before him, earnest and weary. “Jack,” he said, clapping him firm on the arm. “Well met.”
Jack smiled briefly. “Took bloody good care of me ship, mate.”
“Aye, sir.” Gibbs nodded toward the rail. “Sorry about the hole.”
A flicker of a smile touched Jack’s lips, but he couldn’t find the heart to laugh. “Gibbs… Elizabeth was on the Dutchman. Have you—?”
For an instant Gibbs’ face grew harsh, but then softened as abruptly as the sun had broken through the storm. “She’s here,” he said. “Safe enough, though in need of patching up, somewhat.”
Jack swallowed against the sudden thickness in his throat, and could do no more than press his hands together in a gesture of thanks, but before he could hurry to find her, Gibbs seized his arm. “She says Jones is condemned to the Locker. Is she right?”
“Aye, so it seems,” Jack said, his voice rough-edged with relief. “Where is she?”
Gibbs nodded toward the prow. “She don’t seem as celebratory as you’d think, though no doubt she’ll be happy to see you. ‘Twere the first thing she asked about when we fished her out of the drink.”
“It was?” He did smile then, though quickly turned it into a cough.
Gibbs’ hand didn’t leave his arm. “I’ll make no bones about it, Jack. Since I found out what she done to you, I’ve not been too fond of Miss Swann. But it seems— Well, I reckon if you can forgive her…”
Carefully, Jack freed himself from Gibbs’ grasp and patted his friend on the shoulder. “You’re a good man, Gibbs. A good pirate too, eh?”
“Aye, suppose I am.”
Jack looked away, certain that Gibbs could read everything in his face; since his return from Calypso’s strange realm he felt scrubbed raw, the deepest parts of his soul exposed to the wind. “What you have to remember,” he said quietly, “what you really have to remember, is that Elizabeth’s a good woman – and a good bloody pirate, too.”
There was a moment of confusion before understanding dawned on Gibbs’ craggy face. “Ah!” he said. “A pirate, eh?” Then he shrugged. “Well, in that case she done what was right by herself and the crew.”
“So she did,” Jack said. “And you can’t say fairer than that, eh?”
Gibbs’ held his gaze a moment longer, the measured look of a lifetime’s wisdom. Then he nodded and the matter was settled. “I’ll see about mending the rail,” Gibbs said, though there was a spark of amusement in his eyes as he clapped Jack on the back and shoved him toward the prow.
Jack didn’t pay it much mind as he picked his way across the deck, circled his cabin, and eventually found Elizabeth with her chin in her hand staring morosely over the rail at the departing fleet. No doubt thinking of poor William and his bitter fate. Jack paused, unsure how to approach her, for the weight of his newly acknowledged feelings made him awkward.
But she must have heard his footsteps because she turned and gasped in delight. “Jack!” In two steps she was across the deck, throwing an arm about his neck and burying her face against him.
Tentatively, he returned the embrace, her warmth and strength making him— Elizabeth sucked in a harsh breath and he quickly let her go. “You’re hurt.”
She winced. “It’s nothing.”
Ignoring her feeble deception, he immediately saw the bloody tear in her coat, close to her shoulder, and swore beneath his breath. “Let me see.”
“I’m fine, it’s just—”
“Bloody hell, woman!” He batted her protesting hand out of the way. “Let me see.”
With an exaggerated sigh, she stilled and let him slip the coat from her shoulder. And if his finger trembled slightly as he probed the gash – a clean stab from a sword, by the breadth of the wound – it was only because it seemed so stark against her pale flesh. It had nothing to do with the silken softness of her skin, nor how she shivered when his fingertips skimmed the delicate bones of her shoulder. “Should be bound,” he said roughly, tugging her shirt back over the wound and settling her coat with care. “Was it Mercer?”
“I had him.” There was blood upon her face, streaked across her cheek, and a sudden darkness in her eyes. “I wounded him and then— He pushed me overboard. I took him with me, though, I saw him go under…”
Jack swallowed, his voice sticking in his throat. “Bloody miracle you survived those seas, love.” But she was silent, her lips a thin line of regret. “Lizzie, if Mercer was wounded when he went under....”
“But I wanted him to know why he died!” She sighed and shook her head, her beautiful face shadowed with an anger he knew all too well. For ten years, and more, he had carried it. “ I wanted him to know he died in my father’s name.”
“He knew,” Jack said quietly, unable to keep himself from touching her hand in reassurance. “It’s over, Lizzie. He’s gone.”
“I know, it’s just—”
“Sail ho!” High up in the rigging someone was yelling, pointing wildly to starboard. “Sail ho!”
Elizabeth started, her hand already on her sword, as the Flying Dutchman breached the water and crossed their bow in a glittering stream of silver and diamond light. Jack lifted a hand to shield his eyes from the glare.
“It’s beautiful,” Elizabeth gasped. She took an awed step backward, bumping into Jack, and he steadied her with a hand at her waist, feeling like a traitor for wanting her so deeply. Did she not understand the price that had been paid to secure this miracle?
For, where once the Dutchman had been rancid and decayed, she gleamed now with the silver-blue flash of a fish in sunlight. Her sails were whole and shimmered iridescent, like mother of pearl, as she settled upon the calm waters with the elegance of a gull. Jack cast a quick look in Elizabeth’s direction, but he could read nothing in her serious expression.
“Captain?” Gibbs’ voice came from behind them, and Jack turned to see his friend looking distinctly unnerved. “Umm...,” he said, “Captain Turner requests permission to come aboard, sir.”
“Does he?” Jack dropped his hand from Elizabeth’s waist and stepped away. “Well, tell him aye.”
With a nod, Gibbs disappeared around the forecastle and Jack darted a quick look at Elizabeth. “Lizzie, I’m sorry—”
But Gibbs was back before he could finish, looking somewhat pale faced. “He’s… Seems he’s already here.”
Behind him stood another man, as pallid and ethereal as the ship he captained. “Hello, Jack.”
Jack’s jaw dropped. “Bootstrap…?”
His old friend smiled, once more the man Jack had known – and yet, somehow, infinitely more. His face was young, vigorous, and yet he held the world in his aged eyes. “You were right, Jack,” Bootstrap said. “This burden was always mine to bear, a penance, if you like, for what I left behind.”
“A burden I would have gladly born.” The second voice belonged to Will, coming around the corner to stand at his father’s side. “As you well know.”
“Will!” Elizabeth grinned and ran across the deck, hugging him tight. Jack tried not to watch them too closely, yet even from the corner of his eye he saw how close they stood. Foolish, he knew, to envy that which had never been his. But he had always been a fool… He sighed, and fixed his attention on Bill Turner.
The Dutchman’s new captain was nodding, smiling at his son. “Aye, Will, I know you’d have borne this burden – along with the others I left you to carry as a child. But this one is mine, and mine alone. You have another path to walk, son.” His eyes, Jack noticed, twinkled as they’d used to do so long ago. Bill Turner turned a proud smile toward Jack. “My son has business in the Cove, upon the order of your father.”
Jack flicked Will a glance. “And his orders are hard to refuse, are they not?”
“Yes, even if I wished to,” said Will. “But my father’s right – I do have another path to walk. I think… I think, perhaps, I’ve been walking it my whole life, even though I have no idea where it will take me.”
“Best kind of path, mate. ” He couldn’t keep from glancing at Elizabeth, who still stood at Will’s side. She smiled, a wide free smile that made his heart skip with hope. “What say we lift a bottle or two in honour of unknown futures? And in the morning we’ll—”
A sound like the end of the world cut through his words, a terrible shrieking rumble that came from neither sky nor sea. High in the rigging the reedy voiced lookout was shouting again, but Jack couldn’t hear a word. Nor did he need to, for both Will and Elizabeth were staring wide-eyed out across the rail behind him, and as Jack turned around he caught his breath in shock.
The Devil’s Throat was collapsing; the towering cliffs were slouching inward and throwing up great gouts of water as they tumbled into the sea. The whole island was shaking, groaning and convulsing.
“The city!” Will yelled from behind him. “What’s happening to the city?”
Jack looked up at the rim, but could see nothing of what lay beyond. The noise began to abate, though, subsiding into a sporadic growl – like the grinding of a giant’s teeth. But if the quake had hit the island and the precarious construction of Shipwreck City…
Will’s hand landed on Jack’s shoulder. His eyes were calm, yet grave. “There’s more than you can imagine within that city.”
“Aye, so I’ve long been told.” He held Will’s gaze, surprised to see his father’s secrets hiding in the boy’s eyes. Then he glanced over at Gibbs. “Take the Pearl as close as you can,” he said. “We’re going ashore.”
Will could feel it the moment he set foot on the beach, the power of the land thrilling through his bones; deep down, he felt her shudder as the bonds of debt fell away and the earth shrugged off the shackles that had bound her to the Song.
There was freedom in the air, he felt it in the sea breeze that tousled his hair, tasted it in the salt tang of the sea, and felt it in the crunch of his boots upon the rocky shore. They had all – Man, Goddess, and Earth – been bound together these ten score years, bound by greed, ambition, and vengeance. But no more, and he relished that hard-won freedom with each step he took across the beach.
He had power at his command, unformed like raw iron awaiting the forge, and he shivered at the prospect of all that he could become. He’d merely glimpsed it, he knew, in the forging of the blade; the power fashioned between himself and Teague had been heady, an ecstasy beyond anything he’d ever known. To touch that world beyond the misty shores was akin to touching the stars, to understanding the very nature of the universe. If he could only learn all that Teague had to teach, if he could only return to that unearthly chamber beneath the pirates’ city… Glancing up at the black cliffs, he balled his fingers into a fist and prayed that Shipwreck Cove had survived the tremors that had closed the Devil’s Throat.
“Will?” A hand on his arm urged him onward, toward the steep path that led up to the rim. He hadn’t realised he’d stopped walking. “Are you well?”
“Yes.” He offered Elizabeth a smile as they pressed on together, following Ragetti who scampered ahead, leading the way up the cliff. “What about you? Your shoulder…?”
Her face darkened, and in the failing light of dusk he lost her for a moment within the shadows. “It’ll heal.” She fell silent and they walked on together for a while. The beach was steep and the sun had already disappeared behind the rim of the crater, plunging the foot of the cliffs into shade. “You will see your father again,” Elizabeth said suddenly. “Though he cannot come ashore. That’s a comfort.”
“It is,” he agreed, though he could guess the path of her thoughts and gently touched her shoulder. “I’m so sorry, Elizabeth. Governor Swann was a good man, a good friend to me.”
Grimly, she nodded. “I wish— Well, it’s done now. It’s over.”
They slowed as they found the cliff path, and for a moment their eyes met. “I didn’t see him die,” she said quietly. “I didn’t see him die, and know it was by my hand.”
“Vengeance?” Will smiled. “I think Davy Jones had a lesson to teach on that score.”
The expression in her eyes hardened. “Justice, then. A life for a life.”
He studied her, traced the harsh lines of her face and the wind-whipped chaos of her hair. The blaze in her eyes was fierce, uncompromising, and all trace of softness had been scoured away. Honed like a blade, she was beautiful and terrible. “We are so different, you and I.” It felt like a revelation. “I hardly recognise you, now.”
A flicker of regret touched her face, but it was a fleeting expression. “The world has shaped me,” she said. “I’m not what I once was, but I think I’m what I was always meant to be.”
She shrugged, and began to climb the path. “Free.”
As were they all, in this strange new world. Slowly, he followed her, watching the way her blade bumped against her leg as she walked. He wondered what path she would choose, now that she wore men’s clothes and was unbound by the rules that had shaped her life. Her father, he couldn’t help thinking, would have been exasperated – and, no doubt, very proud.
It must have taken at least half an hour to reach the top of the cliff, for night was already creeping in by the time the end of the path was in sight. A slender moon peeked low upon the horizon, but the Midnight Sun was gone and the night was darker than it had been since they’d returned from the Locker.
Pausing to catch his breath, Will turned and gazed out across the darkening sea. The night was clear, the stars just starting to appear, and in the gentle light he saw Jack, not far behind. He too stopped, further down the path, and looked up with a curious expression. Will couldn’t interpret it, though he thought he saw something of both guilt and envy in his gaze.
“I imagine,” Jack said, “that if he survived, Teague will be better pleased to see you than me.”
Jack shrugged. “I scuppered his plans at the end, didn’t I? All those years he spent trying to avoid the inevitable, cheat fate… Teague doesn’t enjoy losing.”
“He was trying to save your life.”
“Or his pride.” Jack walked a couple of steps closer; in the fading light he was all shadows. “What is it I see in you, William? Something new, something too like my father.”
“It’s knowledge,” he said. “Of things you can’t imagine…”
Jack was silent, his head cocked to one side. “You’ve gained one father today, Will Turner. Are you looking for another?”
Will met his gaze, held the challenge. “I’ve lost as much as I’ve gained, Jack. As I think you know.”
There was a flicker of confusion, bright like hope, in Jack’s expression. “I don’t—”
Elizabeth’s voice rang out, a cry of horror that pierced the dusky night. Ahead of them both, she had already reached the rim of the crater and stood there silhouetted against the fading light of sunset. Jack’s eyes widened in alarm, and Will felt the same fear clutch at the pit of his belly. As one, they scrambled up the last few yards to the top of the cliff and—
Will skidded to a stop, breathless. Ahead, spread out in the still water of the Cove, lay devastation. Where once the precarious, impossible heights of Shipwreck City had towered, there now lay a chaos of flotsam. The entire city was gone, strewn in a vast swathe of wreckage that clogged the island sea.
The stronghold of the Brethren was gone; Shipwreck Cove was no more.
“Bloody hell,” Jack breathed.
Elizabeth turned, her face stricken. “All those lives. All those people…”
All that knowledge… Will felt sick, felt himself dizzy with the thought of all that had been lost. “There might be survivors,” he said thickly, “we should—”
“Teague…” Jack’s voice was rough edged, cutting through Will’s shock.
He clasped Jack’s arm. “I’m so sorry—”
But Jack batted his hand away. “No. Teague,” he said, gesturing to where the cliff swept down toward the Cove. “There, look.”
Heart catching, Will peered in the direction Jack was pointing. The cliff fell away sharply, but then softened into a grassy sweep and upon that swathe of land he saw a flicker of light, then another; a snaking procession of torches wound its way slowly up the steep path, and at its head walked a man whose swagger was unmistakable even from a distance. Will barked a laugh of relief. “He must have known…”
Jack shrugged a smile. “And then shall the covenant be undone, and all that was bound shall be unbound. Took that bloody thing in with me mother’s milk,” he said, “or would have done, if I’d had one.”
“All that was bound shall be unbound…” Elizabeth echoed, staring down into the chaos.
“Didn’t think ‘twas just tar and good fortune what kept that pile together, did you?”
She glanced over her shoulder, shrewd suddenly. “Then there’s no more need of the Brethren?”
Jack spread his hands. “The debt’s been paid, our duty’s done. We’re free men.” He lifted an eyebrow. “And women.”
She smiled and looked away, though not fast enough to hide the flare of warmth in her eyes. Jack’s gaze lingered on her back, however, the shadows and angles of his features strangely similar to the face Elizabeth now wore. Harsh people, both of them. Will wondered if they would find any gentleness between them, or if they even wanted to; wild as the sea, he doubted that either would relish calm waters.
“Mother and Child, Jack!” Gibbs puffed up behind them, wiping at his brow after the climb.
Will smiled and let Jack explain to the rest of his crew. Leaving them behind, Will started down the path toward the exodus from the Cove. Teague thought him lost to the Dutchman and Jack bound to two-hundred years of torment; Will didn’t have it in his heart to let him grieve a moment longer than necessary.
As the torches grew closer, Will slowed. Ahead he could see Teague, his own flaming brand lifted high to mark the way. His craggy face was cast in shadow, but Will could feel the weight of his grief as if it were his own.
We are bound, you and I, Teague had told him, a bond forged in fire and deep as blood. Will felt all the truth of it as he watched the old man approach.
“Captain Teague!” he called, striding down the path.
Teague stopped, shaded his eyes with his hand. “Who speaks?”
“It’s me,” Will said, stepping into the torchlight. “William Turner.”
Teague’s torch fell to the ground, and he seized Will by the shoulders with both hands. “How is it possible? The Dutchman— I saw her change.”
“My father,” said Will. “He captains the Dutchman now.”
Teague’s face was stark with surprise, his eyes gleaming within its craggy surface. “Aye, and why not?” he said after a pause, cocking his head as if to examine Will more closely. “A father should sacrifice himself for his son, should he not?” He pressed his eyes shut, his gnarled old hands tightening upon Will’s shoulders. “I am glad you are returned, Will Turner. The world’s all the brighter for it.”
“You have much to teach me,” Will said quietly, stooping to retrieve the torch Teague had dropped. “Come.” He nodded up toward the rim. “There’s more.”
They walked in silence then, until the top of the cliff was in view, crowded with people climbing up from the beach. Will stopped Teague with a hand on his arm. “Captain…”
“Aye, boy. What do you—?”
Saying nothing, he simply pointed as, stepping from shadow into the guttering light of the torch, appeared none other than Captain Jack Sparrow.
Teague gave a rough gasp, stumbling backward in shock, and Will reached out a hand to steady him. “Impossible…” Teague breathed.
“Apparently not.” Jack’s smile was a mere twitch of his lips, his eyes darting from Teague to Will and back again.
“Calypso sent him back,” Elizabeth said, and for an instant her eyes met Jack’s; the look that arced between them pierced Will’s heart, even now.
Silence fell, broken only by the boom of the waves against the cliffs below. Teague took a step closer and Will’s hand fell from his arm. “Has the debt not been paid?”
Jack shook his head. “Forgiven,” he said. “Not paid.”
“Forgiven?” Teague frowned, his creased face folding into chasms of doubt.
“Not in your prophesy, eh?” Jack pushed up his coat sleeve to reveal smooth skin where once he had been branded pirate. “All our deeds laid bare, all our sins forgiven.”
Teague reached out a weathered hand and touched his son’s arm. “I didn’t foresee this,” he said softly, looking from Jack to Elizabeth. “Didn’t imagine this.”
“How could you?” Jack replied, tugging his coat back over his arm. “Didn’t see it coming m’self.”
“Didn’t you, now…?” Teague’s canny gaze slid back to Elizabeth. “Never thought Calypso capable of such a charity as forgiveness, but perhaps you taught her something of it, eh, Jackie?”
Jack’s smile was fleeting. “Perhaps.” Then he nodded behind him, to the crowd amassing on the rim of the Cove. “I’ve set men to building fires and off-loading what provisions we have aboard the Pearl. The Ikazuchi and the Queen Ann are both at anchor, and their crews ashore; I’ve seen Barbossa and Kasumi, both, and others will come. I say we regroup here, and decide what’s to be done once the sun’s up.”
“What’s to be done…?” Teague cast Will a knowing look. “Aye, son, there’s much to be done indeed. But tonight we drink to those we’ve lost, to those we’ve found, and to victory.”
“To victory,” Elizabeth agreed fiercely. “And to freedom.”