"But it's not working," Mulroy grumbled as he pulled the inadequate grapnel back by its rope of knotted cravats. Since the guard had left to join the fighting above decks they had been trying to hook the ring of keys from where it hung on a nail in the partition wall opposite. Trying and trying again for what seemed like hours, without result.
"Not working yet sir, is what he means," Murtogg supplied, helpfully. "Here, let me have a go."
The manacles on the end of the makeshift rope - all they had been able to find in the brig - were more than adequate for heft during the throw, but consistently refused to attach to the keys. Still, there was always the possibility that if they hit the ring hard enough it would bounce upwards off the hook and fall to the floor. From there it should be a simpler matter to drag it within reach. The hope was all they had to hold on to.
"Unless you have a better idea, Mr Mulroy?"
Behind Mulroy there was a gasp. Able Seaman Willis elbowed him in the ribs, pointed. Rope forgotten in his hands he turned to look, felt cold go over him like a wash of moonlight, a memory of nightmares made flesh. "Could try praying, Cap'n"
For there was a ghost in the doorway. Light from the grating in the deck slanted in a grille of shadow over the white form, making it hard to pick out the arrogant, elegant poise and the chill face of Commodore Norrington, who had been shot dead before their very eyes. Now his ghost, stripped of rank and uniform, returned out of a watery grave - you could hear the drip, drip as salt water snaked from his shirt, from his short cropped hair, down the sword he held in his undead hand, mingling with the blood on the blade, falling with small, eerie splashes onto the deck.
Unfinished business, thought Mulroy with a shiver; something to do with that Black Pearl. Probably wouldn't have no rest until she was sunk and her captain hanging from a noose in Port Royal. Either that or... a worse thought struck, he pulled Murtogg's sleeve, looking for comfort. "Y'don't think he found out about the dice game? Or the extra grog ration we snuck off the Interceptor? He wouldn't come back for that, would he?" He could just see the Commodore as the kind of vengeful spirit who paid attention to such details.
"Nah," said Murtogg, looking pale, "more probably here on account of we left him to die at the hand of Jack Sparrow. Come to scuttle us han't he? And then there'll be a crew o'Navy ghosts to follow the undead pirates about the Caribees until the end of time."
As Murtogg's words so often did, this brought a certain reassuring confusion back into his life. "But I thought the undead pirates were more actually what you might call properly dead now?"
"Yeah, well that's my point isn't it?"
The ghost looked about himself carefully as if making sure he was unobserved, then walked - walked, mind you, leaving wet footprints - over to the wall and lifted the key down. Out of the fractured light of the grating he looked more solid, less luminous. Thinner than in life, slightly tanned. He turned with the key in his hands and that rare smile of his that sometimes rewarded a perfect gun crew or a flawless setting of sail "Gentlemen, you are a sight for sore eyes."
The silence persisted. Norrington seemed momentarily taken aback by the sight of so many gaping faces, the scent and feel of awe, then he frowned and walked forward to set the key in the lock, turn it, open the door. Mulroy found himself squashed as the press of men before him edged back, away from freedom, away from the walking corpse, who straightened his back and looked down at the Captain with a more familiar expression of puzzled disappointment. "Is there a problem?"
Captain Peyton snapped to attention - Lieutenants Ellis and Stevens cramming aside so he could move his elbows - "Sir! With respect, sir, the men are a little concerned that you are dead."
"Hmn," said the Commodore, eyes crinkling and his lips pressed tight, holding back a laugh. "Why should that prevent you from escaping to engage the enemy? I'm proud to say that none of you let supernatural phenomena stop you the last time."
"But are you in fact dead, sir? If you are, you should be relieved of command."
Norrington shook his head, held out his hand. Gingerly Peyton took it, Mulroy half expecting him to scream and fall to his knees, transfixed by the unearthly cold. Instead, relief spread over his broad face, followed by a grin that turned his grey eyes into gleaming slits. "I'm no more dead, Frank, than you're floating in a longboat between here and Port Royal. Other circumstances intervened, which we can discuss later. Le Pelley is fighting the Black Pearl as we speak. This is our chance to make prizes of both."
"Aye, Sir!" Peyton beamed again, stumbled stiffly out into the hold, unused to free movement after the crush. He rounded on his men. "You heard the Commodore. Are we pleased about having our ship stolen from beneath us? Are we happy at being forced to sleep standing up in a Frog's brig for a week? No? Up and at them then, and God damn the man that hangs back."
"So," Mulroy limped from the cell with a good will - the pins and needles in his legs something savage. "Is he dead or isn't he?"
Murtogg sighed, "'E's as dead as we are in a rowboat in the middle of the ocean."
"But we're not in a rowboat in the middle of the ocean," he said, trying to follow this. Or were they - because surely you could say that a ship was a boat that could be rowed, couldn't you, and didn't that make it..?
Annoyingly, Murtogg gave him a huge smile of encouragement at the words, as if they explained everything. "Exactly!"
It was easier just to concentrate on 'up and at em'. You knew where you stood with an order like that.
"Mr. Stevens?" Norrington looked at the stiff, dishevelled forms of his men and felt like cheering. Who would have thought the Nimrod's crew in their longboat would have been picked up for head money by the very ship he had set his sights on? Perhaps the gods did not always smile on the pirates after all. "Take your best topmen and get into the rigging - I want her ready to sail at my command."
Lieutenant Stevens looked deeply disappointed at being thus denied a chance to join in the fighting, but nodded and began to assemble his team, calling out several names, taking the men aside to give them his own instructions.
"Midshipman O'Connor? You swim, don't you?" The lad - a lanky, freckled youth with carrot-red hair - nodded eagerly at the thought of being singled out for an important mission, and for a moment Norrington's happiness faltered. Since when had fourteen started looking so young? "Then you may swim to the Pearl and find a way of pouring her water stores into her powder magazine. Back over here as quick as you can, and don't get caught at it."
"Black Jack?" Black Jack was a towering man with a grizzled beard and curled hair white as milk. Norrington had always suspected him of being a runaway slave, but had been careful not to ask. So many poor fishermen and farmers were impressed against their will, why on earth should the Navy turn away any man who came gladly? "You're to stand guard over the rudder chain. The helm must answer when I need it." He would not fall for that trick twice!
"Captain Peyton, I propose to take the helm and keep it. We will then disengage from the Pearl, come about and give her our broadside. She's short on powder, and what she does have I'm relying on O'Connor to quench. Le Pelley's guns are not powerful enough to hull her, so we'll aim to take down her masts. Without her guns and her famed speed she'll have no option but to strike colours. Both prizes are yours if you can take them."
He stepped back, listening to Peyton bark orders, separating the remaining men into gun crews, fore and aft men, marines. Then, taking Lieutenant Ellis and a couple of burly waisters with him, Norrington headed for the deck.
There the fierce sun blazed on smoke; the billowing clouds of gun-recoil and the acrid stench of the mizzen topmast staysail, which burnt with slow, smouldering fire. The world was a swirling confusion of salt-petre and shadows, men looming out of the yellow fog - dark blurs armed with steel. Pirates and French alike, fighting for their lives, hardly registered the furtive shapes of Englishmen passing them, scrambling up into the shrouds, drifting to the rail and taking boarding axes to the cables there.
At the helm, Norrington fought a hard pressed, bloody duel with Le Pelley's Mate. A gallant thing, all sharpness and style, that left him regretting he did not know the man's name. Once the station was secured he put his hands to the wheel and felt the final stay separate, the Conquerant slip free. Above, Steven's men laid in her courses, cut down the burning staysail and dropped it over two of the Pearl's cannons.
The smoke began to blow away. The sails billowed and caught the wind. A thrill of life went through the wheel as the Conquerant answered, slowly whispering forwards, pulling away from the pirate ship on her lee. Every seaman on board could feel it, and as he swept the decks with a glance, Norrington saw scattered clumps of French driving forward with a last desperate vigour - bloodstained, nearly beaten - while the pirates looked at the Pearl falling away from them with panic. With a roar, three tried to charge the helm, balked at the sight of Ellis' salvaged pistol and the muskets at the shoulders of his two men.
"Quick trip back to the gallows, gentlemen?" said Norrington with a satisfaction he could taste like honey. The look on their faces was a sweet revenge for a month of fear. For a breathless moment they thought about this, the dark muzzles of the guns trained on their faces, then they broke, running for the rail, swinging back onto the black decks or diving for the sea.
"Bloody good thing we didn't have to fire, sir," said Ellis with a grin. "Not a single shot between us."
With the pirates gone, the few Frenchmen left standing gave a ragged cheer, falling into horrified silence when they looked up, saw their prisoners in the rigging; saw Englishmen at their cannons, marines facing them with cutlasses grasped meaningfully in their hands. Then a short man in a ridiculous hat broke away from the knot of officers. Running to the rail, he threw himself into the sea and began to swim for shore. It must have been Le Pelley himself, because at the sight every vestige of fight went out of his crew. Those who could swim followed him into the water. Those who could not let fall their weapons and were rapidly bound and taken down to their own brig.
Only in the bows was there still a pitched battle. There Norrington could see Peyton - picking him out by his wig, which the Captain had managed to retain unstained throughout captivity - trying to force his way through the last of the pirates to engage Sparrow. Sparrow himself was standing on top of the Conquerant's swivel gun, watching his ship fall behind with the look of a man crashing through thin ice.
At this moment of victory, James was tempted to be merciful. Tempted not to take the Pearl; just to sail away, leaving the pirate ship to hobble back to port, manned by whoever had returned to her. As long as the Royal Navy existed, he felt that he himself would never be entirely defeated. Surely it would be the same with Sparrow and his Pearl? Should Jack be his prisoner on the Conquerant - should he hang, even - it would still be too cruel to take his ship from him, repaint it in Admiralty colours and refloat it as part of the Fleet.
But he had to. Honour and the Articles of War demanded it. So he called out the turn to Stevens, came about, and began to run in to bring the Conquerant's light broadside to bear on the Black Pearl's masts.
It irked him to be at the helm, conserving his wavering strength. On some low, instinctual level it troubled him that anyone should fight Jack but him. Sparrow was his opponent, and he found himself jealous of that right.
Reason, however, told him that his breath was short, his shoulder ached like the very devil and his hand had cramped with pain and fatigue even fighting Le Pelley's Mate. In this state, he could not give Sparrow the match he deserved - the courtesy of meeting him man to man, at the top of his game. He could not give his erstwhile host the satisfaction of treating him as he would a fellow gentleman, a worthy opponent. Once more - as at the execution - he realized he was hoping Jack would get away, so that someday - someday soon - they could have a truer reckoning. A more meaningful confrontation.
All of which complex of factors made it the right thing to send Peyton rather than going himself. Unlike James, Peyton was not compromised by liking, or the overtures of strange, impossible friendship. Peyton would do his job, and not suffer for it.
As Norrington watched, Jack turned slightly, the wind setting the ends of his sash and his scarf flying. He looked straight down the clean sweep of the deck, dark gaze and golden smile seeming to steal James' very thoughts. Sweeping off his hat, he gave a teetering, elaborate bow, hopped down behind the gun and turned it. For a moment Norrington closed his eyes, imagining the shot barrelling through the Captain, his marines, his gun crews. Nothing he could do to stop it.
The blast roared out. He cringed inwardly, but forced himself to look, just as the ball - beautifully placed - cracked against the end of the jib boom. The stays burst, rope groaned and separated, and the whole slender length of mast slowly sagged until the tip of it rested on the Pearl's stern cabin, linking the two ships, preventing the Conquerant from being able to come up far enough to bring anything but her bow chasers to bear.
Jack ran along the boom like a tightrope walker, wobbled comically in the centre and then stood, perfectly balanced and nonchalant, grinning. "James, mate, listen," he shouted. Twice the volume, but that same posture - holding up one finger as if he just wanted to say something very reasonable, and surely no one would be so rude as to interrupt. "That day at the fort? Ye didn't help me go, y'only let me go. See the difference? Now I done the like to you, and y'have your ship. We're square, savvy?"
Norrington had not suffered from seasickness since the age of twelve, but Jack had the uncanny ability to make him feel the same nauseating upheaval, as though nothing in the world would ever be stable again. What was he saying? That this was all part of his plan? Had he... lead Norrington to the gunpowder? Had he somehow known the Nimrod's crew would be aboard the Conquerant? Had James played into his hands even at the moment he thought himself triumphant? Or was it all the most audacious bluff?
And did it matter? He drew a deep breath, calmed himself, annoyed that Sparrow could vex and provoke him like no other. "Yes, Jack, we're square. No more debts between us. Next time I catch you, you will swing."
"Eh," the pirate spread his arms with a showy flourish, "but this is yet another day you haven't caught Captain Jack Sparrow." Considering, hand pressed to his lips, he went on brightly, "next time I catch you, ye'll walk the plank."
"Hmn. I tremble."
Jack raised his eyebrows with a look that Norrington had only previously encountered behind a lady's fluttering fan. It did not - in his opinion - go well with the beard. "And mate? Love the wet white linen look on you. Stokes the imagination no end."
Oh good grief! It was hard to believe that even Sparrow would say such a thing in full view of his whole blasted crew. Mortified, James spun the wheel, took a certain satisfaction when the boom separated loudly from the Pearl, sending the abominable pirate headfirst into the waves. Wish you may dine with a thousand sharks, he thought bitterly, looking up in time to see the sodden form of O'Connor double up by the rail, bright red with suppressed giggles.
"Something the matter, Mr. O'Connor?"
The boy leapt up, choked a little at the chill tone in his voice, turned white, and stood rigidly to attention. "Beg to report about half the Pearl's powder spoiled, sir. They got wind of me in the end an I ran for it."
"Very good. Lieutenant Ellis, the helm is yours. Captain Peyton, bring the Pearl's masts down, if you please. I'll make that damn pirate choke on his insolence, spar by spar."
But it was not to be. "On deck there!" cried the lookout. "Three sails from Pointe-a-Pitre. Couple o'brigantines and a two-decker."
Someone on shore must have seen the battle and alerted the French Navy, Norrington thought with a sense of doomed inevitability. The Conquerant was already beaten down, sails, rigging, hull and masts all battered by the Pearl. She could not take on a French man-o-war, and in her present state he doubted she could outrun the brigantines. Would he and Jack end up incarcerated together in a jail in Guadeloupe? It sounded likely. What a pitiful end to an action that had seemed to be going so well.
The Pearl had also seen the threat. Her dour canvas was sheeting home with practised efficiency and she was already pulling away, heading out into the open waters, Sparrow clinging onto her side with one hand, waving his hat in farewell.
A famous pirate, James thought, watching the enemy ships approach. A legendary pirate indeed, and on a ship whose strangely shaped hull and black sails were even better known than he was himself. Certainly the French would recognize the Black Pearl for what she was. However they would recognize the Conquerant as one of their own, a ship which sailed under French colours. How were they to know she had been taken by the English? And if they did not know, why should he be the one to tell them?
Leaning down, he stripped the coat from Le Pelley's Mate, put it on. "All hands to look French," he said, decisively, his spirits soaring. "Mr Ellis, find the Captain's signal book and run up this message: 'Making for port. No help required. Prize is Black Pearl, worth 4,300 doubloons. Good hunting'."
For a long, anxious period, they waited for discovery; limping - deliberately slow and lubberly - towards Pointe-a-Pitre, while the waisters found hammocks to sew the corpses into. The topmen began hauling up a new staysail, and the marines - unrecognizable out of their lobster-red coats - helped carry timber up from the hold, looking disgruntled at the demotion.
Fear peaked on the moment when the warships must reduce sail, if they meant to intercept the Conquerant. Norrington stood with Le Pelley's glass pressed to his eye, and could not help but whisper 'huzzah!' as both brigantines and man of war swept majestically past in pursuit of the pirate ship, none the wiser.
Lead them as merry a dance as you've lead me, he thought, looking out at a horizon beneath which the Black Pearl had vanished like a sailor's improbable yarn in the cold light of day, and perhaps I will think myself in your debt again, Sparrow. God speed.
"Gentlemen," he said, smiling through the cheers, "A fine piece of work well done. Now, let's go home."
Jack cradled the brandy to himself and sang, off key and proud of it:
"I asked that girl to marry, won't you go my way
She said she'd rather tarry, won't you go my way..."
They had lost the man-o-war in the little islands surrounding St.Kitts. Lost one of the brigantines in the reefs - the Pearl's beautiful shallow draught letting her slip through where the Frenchman could not go. The third he'd driven onto a rock and plundered. Now his stores were full of fresh powder to replace what Bloody Norrington had spoiled, his cabin was full of French brandy, and his crew was back to full strength with French sailors who'd preferred to sign the Articles than be set adrift.
"She spent my money freely, won't you go my way
She grabbed the lot or nearly, won't you go my way..."
"Told'ee y'should've shot him," said Gibbs, settling to the sandy ground beside Jack and reaching for the bottle. Holding it tighter, Jack felt about behind him until he found another, passed it over. "They'd've put someone like Old Snory in charge in 'is stead - remember him? Life would've been easier... back to the good old days when there was more pirates than bluecoats on the water."
The good old days of being one among many; of finding it all just too easy, of no one knowing or caring who he was. Jack shook his head, watching the stars wheel above the palm trees, the sparks wheel up from his fire. "Nah. Didn't like the good ole days. Like the good new days better. Got me ship, got me rum - well, at present got brandy but it'll do - got me friends, got the wind back in me sails. What more could a man want, cept maybe someone t'share it all with?"
The moon hung golden in the warm sky. Out at anchor the Pearl rode sleepily against a phosphorescent sea, and around him the French lads were drinking their ex-Captain's wine and discovering that piracy was sweet. "Tell you a secret," Jack said, leaning forward and - after a couple of attempts - managing to lay his finger along the side of his nose. "Found me'self a treasure, aint I?" Not a pearl this time, but something that looked like ice but was not cold; clear as crystal, hard as nails. "Great big shiny diamond o'treasure. Just gotta figure a way t'make it mine."
That part might prove difficult, of course, but the challenge was half the fun. He would succeed in the end. After all, he was, Captain Jack Sparrow. "Meantime, ye need to stop fretting. Life's good and can only get better. Jest you have yourself a little drink and sing along of me...
Oh round her up so hearty, won't you go my way,
Yo-ho, oh Jack-me-hearty, won't you go my way?"