Mid-Curse of the Black Pearl. This is so completely AU that I can hardly stand it. No characters were harmed in the writing of this fic – though I can't say the same for reality. Or fictionality. Or something.
Thanks to aphelant for the beta; Miss Charlotte Bronte and Miss Jane Austen for reminding me of the small world of women; and Jack Davenport for being so delicious.
No. What a curious word. More of a sound, really. Surely there were other words in his head (absolutely not, not for all the rum in the hold, not if I were the last man to sail upon the seas) but it seemed he was only capable of forming this one sound, over and over again.
I should have been smirking and feeling superior in some small way. This should have been amusing, watching the glib-tongued devil struggle to put voice to his thoughts.
I couldn't; it wasn't.
It was vaguely terrifying, is what it was. This man – this pirate – is known the Caribbean over for his dancing tongue, but his mouth kept curling around the same tiny syllable as though it had forgotten everything else.
"No," he repeated and scuttled backward away from the bars as though that small distance would protect him from the terrible fate about to befall him.
I would have felt almost sorry for him, were it not for the agony which kept my own jaw locked. The pronouncement which had struck him nearly dumb was all the more painful to me, in ways I fear I shall never be able to express.
But you are confused, are you not? I have jumped ahead of myself. Small wonder you do not understand me; I lived it and still cannot quite comprehend it myself.
Allow me to begin again.
You have heard, I am sure, of the trouble which marred the celebrations after the promotion ceremony at the fort. How Miss Swann was overset by heat and excitement and tumbled from the high walls atop the cliff. How she was rescued by that malodorous miscreant, who then led everyone on a merry chase through Port Royal. How he was apprehended and sentenced to swing for his crimes.
How he escaped from his cell and, together with Will Turner, absconded with the Interceptor the day after pirates attacked the town and kidnapped Miss Swann from her home.
There, I believe, public knowledge of events ceases, does it not?
I will take your blank expression as agreement. There was much rumour and innuendo swirling about the island in the aftermath, but only a few are privileged to know the full truth of what happened next. Soon, you will count yourself among that number.
We set out immediately. Our duties required us to give chase to the Interceptor as soon as we were able to make sail, but our consciences dictated that we find Miss Swann first.
The damage to the Dauntless was quickly repaired (despite their many deficiencies, His Majesty's sailors are remarkably able when the correct incentives are applied) and we were away within a few hours. Governor Swann accompanied us on the voyage, so great was his anxiety over the fate of his daughter.
It was a fruitless task. After so much time, the Interceptor was lost to us. Even with only two men aboard to sail her, she could have been anywhere. We followed known pirate routes through the uninhabited islands, hoping for a trace of sail on the horizon.
At the time, we believed that the pirates who attacked us were working in concert with Sparrow. You laugh, but the only evidence we had to the contrary was Sparrow's word – something we could not trust.
Late that first night, I found the Governor standing on the bridge, staring out at the black water. When he heard me approach, he asked without turning, "Is my daughter lost forever?"
I tried to reassure him with the inevitability of our finding her, but he and I both knew the words were hollow. We had no trail to follow, no information about the pirates who had captured her, and little hope of catching up to either of the ships.
He seemed to crumple under the weight of his wig and coat, but he thanked me for my words and kept up his vigil through the night. The men on the watch later told me that he didn't stir from that spot until dawn broke over the horizon.
That morning at three bells, a call came down from the crow's nest. We were passing within range of a small spit of land and the lookout thought he spotted movement on the far side. We dropped anchor and Groves took a small contingent of marines to investigate. It was nothing more than some livestock which had somehow come ashore, most likely after an accident aboard a merchant ship in that area a few weeks earlier. Most of the animals were already dead, but one or two had survived.
As they were loading the remaining animals into the longboat, one of the marines made a joke which has never been repeated in my hearing. Groves would only say that had I heard it, the five lashes given to the man would have seemed a mercy.
Ah, I see you fidget in your seat, sir. Rest easy; the events which interest you so much will be revealed in due course.
I will skip past the unpleasantness of the marine's punishment. You have never witnessed such an event and I hope you never shall.
After this short delay, we were again on our way. The men seemed heartened by our finding of survivors, even if they weren't the quarry we were chasing. (I have no doubt that the promise of fresh meat added considerably to their cheer.) The Governor had retired to the captain's quarters and the officers were engaged in arguing over which direction seemed the most likely course for our continuing pursuit. They were quite unable to come to any consensus and so we sailed on with no alterations.
As the sun climbed high above us and the heat rose, I must admit that my hopes had dimmed considerably. We had covered a vast amount of sea with no luck and it hardly seemed likely that we would ever find a trace of either ship we were chasing.
I was moments away from suggesting that we turn our efforts in another direction when a cry sounded from the crow's nest once more. Just one word and all our hopes were restored.
"SMOKE!" the lookout cried. He pointed to the west and we all turned to see a huge column of black smoke rising against the crystal blue sky.
It could have been any number of things, some more likely than others, but I knew in my heart that we had found Miss Swann.
The Governor came rushing out onto the deck when he felt the ship change course. He stood at the bow, hands clenched upon the railing, as the small island hove into view. He declined to join the landing party, preferring to wait on board.
My heart was in my throat as we approached the shore and a slight figure rose from the sand and waved to us.
It was her. It was Elizabeth.
She didn't even wait for us to disembark, but ran into the surf and threw her arms around me as soon as she was able. I will admit only to you that I may have shed a tear of joy at that moment. Do not repeat it to anyone else, sir. I shall deny it to my dying breath.
My happiness was short-lived, however, as is so often the case when Miss Swann is nearby.
We helped her into the boat and were ready to row back out to sea when she placed her hand on mine and said, "Hold a moment. I was not the only inhabitant of this place and I cannot consign him to the death I have been spared."
I looked to the shore and saw the him she spoke of: Captain Bloody Sparrow.
He stood in the shallows, his boots slung over one shoulder and a hand upon his cocked hip. His teeth glinted in the harsh sunlight and the braids in his hair seemed to coil around his head as though he were a descendent of the Medusa.
Truthfully, were it not for the small weight of Miss Swann's hand upon mine, I would have cheerfully left him to his fate. But, as ever, I complied with her wishes and allowed the man to come aboard.
When we gained the ship, the Governor clutched his daughter to him as though she were the only thing keeping him afloat. For her part, she clung to him with the same fervour. I saw a man or two wipe a tear from his eye at their reunion and must confess that I may have done the same.
That vulgar pirate mockingly aped the emotion displayed by us all and it was with the greatest satisfaction that I gave the order to have him restrained once more.
As the manacles closed around his wrists, Miss Swann turned from her father and protested. The heat in her voice took me aback and I looked upon her in some confusion.
With her elegantly attired father as a backdrop and the vehemence in her tone colouring the scene, her dishevelled state took on new and shocking meaning.
We knew that she had been abducted from her home in the middle of the night and held captive for untold hours by the most fearsome band of pirates in those waters. I believe that none of us would have given her appearance a second thought given these circumstances were it not for her behaviour on seeing the pirate so restrained.
The reddened skin on her chin and neck, the bruises that bloomed on her shoulders and arms, the broken stitches at her hems... All of these could have been explained away by her treatment at the hands of the pirates and the hours spent on that deserted island.
I knew, in that moment, the truth of the matter. This was no missish defence of a man she considered her saviour; this was more.
With new eyes, I saw the way her hand (so recently upon my own) curled around his arm. The way he turned into her embrace. The faint apology that lurked somewhere deep in her eyes. The cocky grin he flashed at me, triumphant at having won a contest between us that I hadn't even known was taking place.
My heart swelled and burst within my chest, sending a tide of blood into my brain, clouding my vision. I ordered him to be taken below and smiled with grim satisfaction when he yelped in pain as the marines dragged him away.
The Governor, frozen in shock at first, soon leapt into action – sweeping off his coat and wrapping his daughter in it. He hurried her into the cabin and shut the door behind them.
I remained on deck long enough to give the order to return to port. The crew jumped at my barked words and all too soon I had no more reason to delay. It was the only time in my career I wished for less able hands.
I let myself into the cabin and shut the door behind me.
Miss Swann leapt to her feet and hurried to my side as soon as I had crossed the threshold.
"You will not hurt him, will you, Commodore?" she pleaded.
Despite myself, I was wounded by her words. Did she really think so little of me that I would harm the blackguard while he was in my custody? Had she learned nothing of the man I was during our long acquaintance?
I did not lower myself to respond to her and instead addressed her father, for a father only was he at that moment. The Governor had melted away on deck, leaving only an old man whose disappointment and pain was writ large across his features.
"What would you have me do, sir?" I asked, trying hard to bury my own torment in the face of his.
He sighed and sank into the captain's chair, one shaking hand pressed to his brow. "You know the law as well as I, Commodore. There is only one thing that can be done."
Believe me when I tell you now that these were the only words he could have said and the only ones I could not bear to hear. Had he asked me to ignore all we had witnessed, to demand of my crew their total silence – this I would have done in an instant, pride and duty be damned. But Weatherby Swann has always been a better man than I. Even were his rank and privilege stripped from him, this would be so.
You laugh again, but I speak only the truth. You will come to recognize this in time, I am sure.
No, do not fidget so. You are impatient for the rest of the tale and I shall not keep you wanting. But you must bear with me while I explain the circumstances that precipitated the Governor's words.
There is much danger in the waters and lands of these islands we occupy. Life is a flimsy thing in any country, but here, in the tropics, it seems no more substantial than a dream. An untold number of diseases and accidents cut down vast numbers of its inhabitants in any given year. There is also something intoxicating about the climate that leads sensible men and women to their ruin. As a result, certain variations have been made to His Majesty's laws, in order to uphold the civilization we have fought (and still fight) so hard to establish.
One of these variations, which has only recently been passed into law, is what is commonly referred to as the Act of Decency. It requires that any man and woman believed to have acted upon their prurient natures are required to marry immediately. It is nothing more than a legal basis for the measures already taken in most cases of such behaviour. However, the esteemed members of Parliament have decreed that the punishment for refusing to obey the law is death. Their reasoning seems to be that every inducement is necessary to keeping the tropics full of Englishmen and women who live up to their standards of decent behaviour.
I will not trouble you with my opinion of this law, as I am sure that you know me well enough to work it out for yourself. Suffice it to say, both the Governor and I were bound by it to proceed as we did.
Miss Swann took longer to reach the same conclusion that we had already made. She didn't catch up to me until after I had informed the captain of his impending duty.
Oh, you must believe me – there is nothing in the world I would rather have done that day. Despite all the wounds which Miss Swann inflicted upon my person and my feelings, I would have moved the world for her were I able. But all her tears and imprecations were in vain; there was naught else I could do for her.
And so we arrive back at the starting point of this tale: once Miss Swann had dried her tears and exhausted her protests, she, the Governor, the captain, and I went below. It was a solemn procession – all of us would have rather been elsewhere. Even the crew was sober and respectful as we passed. Many of them doffed their hats to the lady as she walked between them, several of them no doubt thinking of their own mistreatment at the hand of His Majesty's government, both real and imagined.
My voice failed me when we reached the brig. I could no more inform Sparrow of his fate than I could take Miss Swann in my arms and fly us away from the ship. The captain, in a voice that seemed at once too loud and too quiet, explained the situation to the pirate and ordered the guard to unlock the cell.
As I have already told you, he never said more than No. I have no doubt that there were all manner of confusing and meandering speeches locked in his throat, but he did not voice them. His eyes seemed to hold a real terror, as they never did when he was threatened with the gallows.
In the time since, I have often reflected on that curiosity. Brave though he was in the face of death, it seems that nothing terrified the pirate more than the mere spectre of respectability.
Or perhaps it had something to do with his misplaced notions of freedom and liberty. A hanging clearly meant little to him, as often as he escaped the noose. But there was no escape for him this time – no well-timed threat or lucky cannon-shot or easily led rescuer.
Whatever the reason for his dread, he spoke no more than that single word, again and again. And even that he ceased repeating at a look from Miss Swann. The resolute set of her jaw and resignation in her eyes shut him up as I doubt anything else in the world could have done.
With only a few words, the deed was done. The captain returned to his duties, the pirate to his cell, and the Swanns to their cabin refuge. I stayed behind a few moments and released the guard from his post.
Long minutes passed in which I was utterly unable to look the pirate in the eye. I examined the bars of his cell, the lace at my cuffs, any and everything that could delay the moment a while longer.
Finally, I summoned the courage to speak. I started and stopped so many times that I lost my place entirely and stood there like a lunatic, staring at the man. He seemed diminished somehow, though I cannot explain why.
At length, I said only this: "For her sake, I hope you will act with honour for once in your life."
Something flickered in his eyes at this and he nodded, just the barest lowering of his head in acknowledgement of my words.
It was enough.
I went topside and climbed into the rigging. The lookout nearly tumbled from his perch in surprise when I gained the crow's nest, but scrambled down willingly enough when I relieved him of his duty. I spent the rest of the voyage home curled in that lofty place, watching and willing the familiar sights of the fort and the town to rise up before us.
Bear with me a little longer, sir. I know that it is late and we should both seek our beds, but there still remains a little more of the tale.
Shortly before we arrived in Port Royal, one of the sailors unearthed a length of cloth from the stores and gave it to Miss Swann, in order that she should fashion herself some sort of attire in which she could row ashore. She and the Governor took the first boat and disappeared into the crowd on the docks. It wasn't until nearly four months later that I saw her again.
I accompanied the pirate in one of the last boats. He went willingly enough – all the fight seemed to have gone out of him. When we arrived at the fort and he was transferred into a cell, he requested a quill and parchment. Some hours later, I was summoned from my office. He had written out a full confession and asked that I convey it to the magistrate. I did not read (and have not to this day read) his words and I do not know if he expected or requested leniency. I do know he did not receive it. He was hanged at sunrise on the third day after his rescue.
And thus was Miss Swann, now Mrs Sparrow, made a widow after only a few dozen hours as a married woman.
There was another set of papers which the pirate requested I carry away that night. It was a letter written to Elizabeth (for I cannot call her Mrs Sparrow again) and it is the only thing I ever concealed from her. In it, he writes of his regret in having harmed her in any way and spins tales of his own lost hopes and crushed dreams. I believe his written words no more than I do those he spoke in my presence, but it is a compelling story nonetheless. He describes his former life (imagined, no doubt) as a respectable merchantman in the employ of the East India Trading Company and begs her to write to his sole living relation, whom he claims is his father.
He also tells her that she is the only woman who bothered to look past the façade he showed to the world and for that he will always be grateful. The letter closes with an apology to her and a hope that his reputation will not tarnish hers for long.
That, at least, he was granted. Elizabeth's continued absence from society helped to quash the scandal, as did the reluctance of my men to speak of those events. By the time she was seen again, almost ten months to the day after her abduction, the citizens of Port Royal were content to label her a widow and have done with it.
I saw her only twice in those ten long months. The first was, as I said, four months later. The Governor summoned me to his estate and I was only too willing to go. I wanted to see for myself that Elizabeth did not carry any lasting ill effects from her ordeal. I am happy to say that she did not. If anything, she looked even more radiant than before, though her skin was several shades lighter than I had ever seen it – even on that first journey from England.
The second time I visited with her was shortly before the end of her seclusion and, indeed, the end of her presence in these islands. I was ushered into her bedchamber by a servant and presented with the greatest gift she could ever have given me.
It's been a year since that day and here I sit in the same room. The bedchamber in which I last spoke to her lies empty; she will occupy it no more. Instead, she dwells in a better place, where whispers will never reach her ears and she can do as she likes.
Sometimes I wonder who keeps her company there. Is it the pirate whose name she bore for so short a time or the blacksmith's apprentice who tossed everything aside for her?
But these are not matters for us, are they, young sir? We must occupy ourselves with our own concerns, chief of which is that you should have been abed some time ago and, for that matter, so should I. I see your nurse hovering in the doorway – no doubt she is anxious for you to be returned to her care. We should not keep her waiting.
Sleep well, little Master Sparrow. I will be here when you awake.