A/N: This came about in part after viewing several incredible examples of antique dueling pistols at a gun show. They're beautiful, inlaid with silver, embellished with engravings of mythical creatures and acanthus leaves, svelte and expertly crafted—until you think about the ugly thing they were really made to do. It seems my imaginings on the subject, as in all things, leads to another foray into the world of POTC…
Also, I LOVE tattoos. I have a couple myself, and I had a blast researching the history of the art of tattooing, and the language/symbology associated with nautical tattoos. Some of what I mention probably actually came later than the golden age of piracy c 1700-1730, but I hope you will forgive my taking of artistic liberties for the sake of the story. :) Also, I know Jack's tats are shown briefly in AWE, including a massive full back inking of the poem Desirderata, (please see Colorblindly's musings on that subject on tumblr because she's brilliant!) but I've decided to use a less than canon description of Jack's tattoos for my own purposes.
Lastly, I warn you this is a little dark, even for me. But, in the blackest darkness we can see the brightest light…
Obviously, I own nothing and make no money, blah blah blah. That said, I hope you enjoy! :)
Chapter I : Pistols at Dawn
Elizabeth Swann was born to a gentile household with blue blood in her veins, and thus her life was supposed to unfold in the straightest of lines. She would grow up to become a lovely young debutante, marry well, and have a family. Her children would be expected to do the same, and so on and so forth, an unending cycle of proliferation .
None of these plans brought into account an errant piece of Aztec gold, a shipwrecked boy whose father had been a buccaneer, or especially the friendly acquaintance she would make with the legendary pirate Jack Sparrow. Furthermore, who could have guessed that Elizabeth would fall in love not with the upstanding Commodore James Norrington, to whom she was promised, but with that young blacksmith of questionable lineage?
James Norrington certainly had not understood it, and set about to restore the balance of society in the way gentlemen have settled their disputes since medieval times. Ladies, especially not ones as fine and coveted as Elizabeth Swann, simply were not meant to marry blacksmiths, no matter the yearnings of the heart. And so he challenged young William to a duel, as honor demanded.
One quiet dawn upon the beach outside the town, James faced William Turner in a sanctioned duel between men. It began with pistols, a pair of beautiful silver-inlaid pieces crafted by the finest gun smith in London, works of art created for the purpose of killing for honor. Perhaps the boy had practiced for hours on end daily with a sword in his sooty smithy, but he had very little experience with firearms. With the first shot James wounded the boy badly, and Will was too proud to surrender in the subsequent bout with swords.
In a fit of cool fury James cut the boy down, years of military conditioning guiding a deadly sword hand. Standing on the quiet beach with the blacksmith's body at his feet, James could hardly even remember how it all happened.
When Elizabeth received the news that her fiancé had been killed she did not leave her bed for five days. She lay supine, staring at the wall, refusing to eat or hardly even drink. On the sixth day she rose like a wraith from her bed, gaunt and eyes bruised from crying. A new cause possessed her, and with single-minded determination she set about to make it so.
One night, a month later, she dressed in dark men's clothing and went to James' rooms. It was almost too easy to scale the tree outside, and make her way in through the window. In the shadows of his bedchamber she waited, seated in a plush chair in the corner. When James finally came in, exhausted from a long day's work, he almost did not notice her in the light of the single candle he brought in.
"What the devil? Elizabeth, is that you?"
She could hear the surprise in his voice, but also curiosity.
What could she be doing in his bedchamber this late at night, if not…? She could tell that even now, he did not fathom that he was in danger.
"Did you enjoy it?" she asked, her voice a hollow echo of the emptiness she felt inside.
"I beg your pardon?"
"Did you enjoy killing Will?" she expounded. "Did it bring you pleasure?"
He stiffened. "Of course not," he spat, somehow finding the capacity for indignity.
"Then why do it?" she asked, her voice flat. The suggestion of tears rose in the back of her throat, but she quashed them down.
She'd promised herself that she would not cry anymore.
"Honor," he answered quietly, sensing how foolish it sounded now.
"His life was worth so little? That kind, sweet boy, who had never raised a hand to anything but the iron upon his anvil, before the pirates came?"
James found he had no good answer. "He had no right to take you," he finally huffed, disliking being forced to look in the mirror and account for his actions. It was something he only did late at night when fortified with several glasses of brandy, and at his own behest.
Everyone else accepted Will's death as a justified act, even inevitable. The boy forgot his place, and so Commodore James Norrington reminded him.
"I was never yours," she informed him blandly. "Once, I thought we were friends, James. But I never loved you."
"You would have, Elizabeth, in time—"
"Time is up," she said ominously. "You decided that Will's life was worth so little that you could snatch it from him without consequence. Well, I what if I decided that your life was worth nothing?"
A thread of caution entered his voice as he said, "Elizabeth, you're just—"
"A woman?" she finished for him. It was exactly what he intended to say, but for some reason he deemed it wise to remain silent, a chill running down his spine. "If you had truly loved me, James, you would have let us be. But what you really love is your reputation. I wonder what people will say when they hear a woman has killed you?"
She revealed the object clasped in her right hand. It was her father's pistol, its fine silver chasing gleaming with deadly promise in the low light. It was heavy in her hand as she levelled it at James. Her hand shook. It never had when she'd practiced with it upon the beach, firing upon shells lined up on a piece of driftwood, imagining putting a lead ball in the Commodore's cold heart.
But this was different, she supposed.
James held out an entreating hand.
She closed her eyes and pulled the trigger.
The deafening crack split the air of the small room, and the Commodore crumpled to the ground.
The rest passed as a blur. She did not know how long she stood there with a ringing in her ears, the sting of burnt salt-peter in her nose, watching James bleed upon his Turkish rug. Long enough for his man servant to burst through the door, raising the alarm. It was the necessary catalyst to nudge Elizabeth into action. In all the hurry she dropped the pistol at the scene like a calling card, scrambling out the window and down the plumeria tree.
She stole into the night, knowing from that moment forward she would be a hunted woman. For men could kill each other in a civilized fashion at an appointed hour, but true justice delivered at the hands of a woman could be considered nothing but an unnatural menace.
Elizabeth woke with a gasp, looking about with wild rum-colored eyes. Slowly reality settled back upon her. She was not in Port Royal. Two years had passed since she shot Commodore James Norrington.
The sound of the waves, not but a stone's throw from her door, calmed her pounding heart. She was in her narrow rope bed upon a tick mattress, surrounded by the rickety walls of the shack by the sea she called home. Moonlight splashed across her floor, a space she could cross in four good steps.
Space was tight, but her quarters suited her new life.
A wooden shell that had weathered a storm or two, but lived to tell the tale.
James had not died.
She'd only hit him in the shoulder, and though she heard infection nearly took him, James Norrington lived to tell the tale.
Her marksmanship had improved considerably since then.
After allegedly killing the Commodore, for she had not yet heard the news of his survival, Elizabeth had stowed away on a ship bound at dawn for the Bahamas. She'd managed to steal a single-masted skiff that could easily be handled by one person, and she made her way to Tortuga, thinking it a proper place for an outlaw to hide.
Secretly in her heart she'd hoped to see a ship with black sails moored in the harbor. Hoped to find a familiar pair of soulful dark eyes, and a sympathetic ear. Perhaps even an idea or two as to some employment that would not require spreading her legs.
But Jack Sparrow was not to be found. The Pearl had gone to Madagascar, some said, or perhaps even the Far East. Rumor was all, but the gist was that the Pearl was not in the Caribbean.
Elizabeth stumbled upon gainful employment on her own one night, walking the streets of Tortuga, her last pence spent on a bowl of questionable stew and a flagon of grog. Unsure of her heading, she'd wandered by a legless old man seated outside his shack, administering a tattoo of a skull and crossbones upon a pirate's shoulder. The old man puffed on a long pipe in one hand, and dipped a needle in a shell full of black ink with the other, piercing his client's skin repeatedly.
The design was actually rather fine, of considerably better quality than many she'd had occasion to observe in her short time upon the island. "Ye like tattoos, lass?" had asked the old man with surprising warmth, a small smile curling weathered lips.
"I like your work," she complemented. "Very fine."
"Would ye like one?" he offered, finishing up his patron, wiping it down with a bit of watered rum. It stung like the devil, but for some reason it seemed to cut down on the swelling and infection so common the next day. "A nice flower, perhaps? A sweetheart's name?"
"I haven't any money," she admitted sadly.
"Well…ye have two legs, which is a sight more than I can say for me'self. Could use a helper, unless ye've got something better to do."
That night Elizabeth received her first tattoo, a flower upon her wrist. At first glance it appeared an innocuous little posie, but on closer examination one could identify it as an oleander, a beautiful but very poisonous flower.
As the man who called himself Tattoo Tom pricked her skin again and again with his ink stained needle she told him the story of all she'd lost and how she'd come to this island of cut-throats and brigands. He had a way of drawing it out of her, with laughing gray eyes and a sympathetic turn of his mouth. She read the spark of approval in his eyes as she recounted how she'd shot the Commodore and escaped into the night, the old man nodding with his pipe clamped between his teeth.
Somewhere between the countless pricks of the needle, the pain dull but insistent, Elizabeth marveled that for the first time in ages she actually seemed to feel something. Even if it was pain, she would take it over the numb that had set over her, turning the world a hopeless gray.
"There now," he'd said, finishing her oleander. "Perhaps someday soon that scoundrel Jack Sparrow will return from the East with the load of fine Japanese inks he promised. That will add a nice bit o' color to your mark."
"You know Captain Jack Sparrow?" Elizabeth had gushed, unable to contain herself.
The old tar's mouth had split into a grin. "Aye, since he was a lad. Sailed with his father, I did, on both sides of the law. You know ol' Jack?"
They stayed up long into the night, exchanging stories over a bottle of run. When the vile libation won its battle with them, Tom slept in his chair, and let Elizabeth curl up in his bed in the corner of his small shack built of driftwood and flotsam from old ships.
Elizabeth stayed on with Tattoo Tom, running errands, and doing a little cooking and cleaning. He treated her well, like a niece or long lost daughter, and she doted on him too. Despite his gruff exterior, he really was a kind old man, and entertaining too. She watched him ply his trade with fascination, and eventually she worked up the courage to ask him to teach her his art. She had always excelled at rendering; drawing and painting had been one of the few subjects she could apply herself to with gusto as child and young lady without being bored to tears.
Tom liked the sketches she would sometimes scribble out, and knew his odd little foundling had potential as an artist of the ink. If Weatherby Swann could have ever guessed what Elizabeth would someday use the years and years of art training under the most expensive tutors from Europe for, he would have locked up her brushes and thrown her paints out the window.
In this way she became Tom's apprentice, and through him she began to gain some acceptance upon the island. Aside from Ana Maria and Anne Bonny, the men of Tortuga knew not what to think of a woman who was not a lady of the nocturnal profession. Elizabeth seemed to be of finer stock, and yet no one knew from whence she'd come. On Tom's advice, she kept her exalted origins and the story of her misadventure with the Commodore to herself. Some passes were made, and repelled, without much incident. Elizabeth continued to perfect her new calling, practicing on the brave, the drunk, and even her own flesh.
She began to accumulate a collection of her own tattoos, joining the ranks of the mark'd pirates of Tortuga, wearing her story on the outside as well as within. There was something therapeutic in harnessing one's history in permanent ink under the skin. You could tell events your way, and make a talisman against your worst fears. Lizzy wore her marks with pride, smiling when she thought of what her old friends in Port Royal would say if they could see them.
After the oleander flower came an anchor upon her inner forearm. A compass rose upon her shoulder. A sword fashioned after Will's own stretched the length of her other inner forearm, piercing a heart. Lastly, Elizabeth sported a siren that wrapped from her lower back down her hip, a skull in her hand, and a ship sailing upon the rolling waves of the mermaid's hair.
In time, Elizabeth became a good needle-woman, then even exceptional. Men began to come to Tom's shack to see the designs Elizabeth pinned to the walls. She expanded from tattoos to other arts, embellishing maps, and sometimes even sketching commissioned portraits. The pirates who all considered themselves legends in the making enjoyed seeing their likenesses put down on thick paper. More like than not they would die on their next voyage, and Elizabeth's infamous portraits provided a rare permanence to their otherwise feckless existence.
Time went on, and with surprise one evening, sitting on the back porch overlooking the water, the sweet scent of Tom's tobacco perfuming the salt-tinged air, Elizabeth found that she was actually happy. It sneaked up on her unexpectedly, like an old friend come home. As though he sensed this revelation, Tom had patted her shoulder before making his way inside on his crude wheeled chair and the ropes secured for pulling himself about the shack.
The next morning, Elizabeth found her old friend sitting cocked in his chair, seemingly asleep. But something wasn't quite right, and as she neared closer she realized the kind old tar had passed away.
The island sent him off with a hero's funeral, and everyone of permanent residence, and most of the crews in port too, showed to pay their respects to the renowned tatooist. The solemn ceremony was followed by a raucous wake in the best buccaneer style. Elizabeth sang songs and drank like an equal amongst the men, and heard stories about Tom that the humble old pirate had never told her.
Before losing his legs in a disagreement with a cannonball he'd been a first rate adventurer, and a force to be reckoned with. He'd had a wife and a daughter on Tortuga, who had been taken one after the other by a fever one merciless summer. Tom had never mentioned them, but suddenly Elizabeth had understood the occasions late at night when Tom would look at her with a wistful longing in his eyes. Had she lived, Tom's daughter Sally would have been about Elizabeth's age. It also explained the tattoo of "Nancy" on his forearm in a heart, of whom he'd never spoken.
During the bittersweet revelry Elizabeth was reminded why she did not often go out to the pubs. Ironically, she was comfortable in her solitude, but in company she was so sorely reminded of everything she'd lost. She would long for Will's rough hands and gentle eyes, or even a wobble-legged pirate to keep her company with stories across the table.
That night, Elizabeth met the notorious Captain Charles Vane. He was famous for his brutality and prowess in battle, and yet for her he offered a genuine smile and an offer to buy her a drink. They'd talked late into the night, even shared a sweet rum-soaked kiss. Charles walked her home, and was so very surprised when she did not invite him inside her little shack for the sort of comfort only two warm bodies in the dark can provide. Vane was a good-looking man who received favors for free more often than he paid for them from the girls, and Elizabeth's polite refusal befuddled him.
After that Charles began to stop in, bringing her small treats, an orange, a quill, a shimmering scarf of Indian silk or a packet of sandalwood incense. He purchased a tattoo, and then a portrait, grinning with delight for his likeness in ink. "Think I'll send this to the Admiralty," he mused. "Tis a much better likeness than the picture on my broadside. A man likes to look his best, you know."
Elizabeth liked Charles, and yet something about him urged her to remain cautious. Every once in a while something made her uneasy in his presence. He was a predator of the sea, she rationalized, as surely as a shark. She wouldn't forget it.
Next, he requested a portrait of her. At first she said no, pleading that she couldn't, and besides, she didn't have a looking glass to draw from. The next day Charles brought her a glass in a gilded frame, a very rare item in those days, and a pigment stained box that was filled with all the trappings of the trade of an easel painter.
There were brushes of sable and boar's hair, fine pigments to grind, and oils for mixing. Vermillion, lake, lapis lazuli, naples yellow, sienna, umber, ocre, and lead white—it was like a box filled with all the wonder of a rainbow, and Elizabeth found herself holding her breath as she surveyed the treasure within. The smell of the linseed oil took her back to her childhood, times of both sitting for portraits and creating her own works. She noticed a name etched into the upper inner corner of the case: David T. Fenwick. She laughed, and then realized that she could not reveal the reason for her mirth without also revealing where she'd come from.
So, she made up a little lie. "Mr. Fenwick painted my mistress' portrait when she turned sixteen," she said with a sparkle in her eye. "He was an excellent painter but a horrid man, cranky as an old boar and proud as a peacock. Made her miserable. Did you steal this from him?"
Vane smiled, pleased to see her happy. "Jack Rackham did. Said he was an ornery old goat and very upset to lose his colors."
"They're very expensive," Elizabeth confirmed, holding up the lapis, admiring the gold flecks within the dreamy blue stone. "Some almost worth their weight in silver."
"Then it is fitting you shall have them. Paint me a grand self-portrait, Elizabeth."
When she attempted to protest one last time he set down a stack full of gold doubloons that made her eyes wide as saucers.
Funny, that once such a thing would not have impressed her. But now she knew what it meant to be hungry, and to sometimes want for simple necessities. In a way Elizabeth felt as though she'd come to sell herself after all. And yet she had learned that sooner or later, everyone has to sell some piece of themselves to survive in this world. No one's hands remain clean. Not really.
Reluctantly she agreed, and went to work first with sketches. It had been so long since she'd looked at herself, and it was rather a shock to see what she'd become. Sun-browned, hair bleached by the sun and adorned with braids and beads. Her eyes held a darkness now, and on a whim she decided to paint her lids with a cosmetic she rarely had occasion to use, lining her eyes with kohl. She was still beautiful, she discovered, almost disinterestedly, like happening upon an unexpected flower blooming in an otherwise forbidding wood.
Resigned, she began to draw.
In a month's time she had completed the portrait for Vane, and he beamed with pleasure to receive it. "I think I shall keep it in my cabin," he remarked. "As the real thing continues to evade me."
He'd gauged her reaction with a sideways look, finding her response amused but aloof. With a sigh, he went on his way, with a promise to return later.
Vane never asked if there was someone else in her life. An event for which she waited with such determined patience. She wasn't sure she could have told him if he had, but deep in her heart she knew she had not yet given up hope that someday a ship with black sails would appear on the horizon.