The air was bitter cold, and damp. Unnaturally cold, like everything about the mist-shrouded ship. Elizabeth shivered in her thin nightgown as she was brought upon deck, light-headed with hunger after who knew how many days in the brig. All around her stood the crew – she could not call them men – their faces indistinct, blurred as if each one were twenty faces at once, their eyes mere hollows of black. And they spoke in a sibilant whisper just beyond her ability to hear, a susurrus of death.
She shied away from their icy touch as they herded her toward the gangplank. Apparently she was to go ashore because, as the mist swirled, she glimpsed a crude dock and beyond that a rocky cliff. “What is this place?” She got no answer, just a press of cold against her back as the crew urged her down the rickety plank to the dock.
They followed, streamed like mist behind and around her, leading her onward. There were words in the fog, but she could not make them out; a soft keening of lost souls, perhaps, sighing their regrets.
Nothing but a stony beach met the end of the dock, and from there a narrow ravine cut into grey cliffs. Upward, she was urged, her bare feet scraping raw on the cold rock, so painful she had to bite back tears as she was forced to climb, heart labouring with the effort. At the top she stopped, propped against a boulder to catch her breath, and looked out over the cliff. The ship – a mirage in grey – sat alone at the makeshift dock, the leaden sea stretching out behind it under ominous clouds. She wondered again where she was – these were not Caribbean skies – but cold mist enveloped her, the crew urging her onward, and there was no time to ponder.
At least there was grass beneath her bruised feet, coarse and scrubby though it might be, and she limped on with gritted teeth. After a few minutes she noticed an agitation among the crew, their almost inaudible whispering became louder, clearer and she thought she began to hear words – mistress, home, the one you seek. Cold, insubstantial hands pushed at her, eagerly urging her forward, and she was forced into a limping run until a structure loomed suddenly from the haze and she lurched to a stop.
A ramshackle construct of driftwood and old boats, rags and peat, the shack stood alone upon the rugged cliff top. What might once have been a sail hung over the doorway, moving in and out with the breeze as if the shack itself were breathing. A sudden foreboding clutched at Elizabeth’s heart; she knew she was expected to go inside and dreaded what she might find. There was an ill feeling emanating from the dilapidated structure, a cold anger, held too long and grown putrid.
Ghostly hands pushed at her back – she felt one tangle in her hair, another pinched her skin, and with a yelp of disgust she batted them away. “All right,” she snapped, whirling to face her ghostly escort, “I understand I must go in. Only answer me this – what’s inside?”
There was a crescendo of whispering in response, but all she could understand from it was one word; mistress… Elizabeth clenched her fingers, unclenched them, and wished for a sword. “Very well,” she said, turning back to the shack. At the very least, she would find an answer within.
Taking a deep breath Elizabeth pushed aside the curtain and stepped inside. If she’d been expecting a hint of warmth, she was disappointed. It was as cold as the windblown cliff, lit only by a guttering ship’s lantern that sat on a rough table that had been hewn from a plank. A pile of rags filled one corner of the hovel, blurred and indistinct, and the remains of a small fire was scrubbed out in the centre of the dirt floor. There was something pitiful about this place – pitiful and dreadful, all at once. Misery and despair seemed to ooze from the rotting wood, to hang dank in the air. She wanted to turn away, to run and never look back. But instead she took a step further into the shack, her eye suddenly caught by a beautiful apple that sat next to the lamp. Her stomach cramped in hunger and she couldn’t help herself reaching out to take the fruit.
No sooner had her fingers touched it than its skin grew leathery, and a voice said, “You must not take what is not yours.”
With a start, Elizabeth turned. Behind her stood a girl, no more than twenty years old. Her pallid face was beautiful, framed by long raven hair, her slender body clad in a ragged, old fashioned dress. But her eyes were black, cold and bitter as a winter’s night, and aged beyond her years.
“I’m sorry,” Elizabeth said, taking a wary step back. “I’m hungry, and I didn’t know the apple was yours.”
The girl didn’t answer, instead drawing closer and studying Elizabeth with an unnerving scrutiny. “You are not what I expected.”
Instinctively, Elizabeth drew back. “Who are you?”
The girl paused, as if considering. “I had a name,” she said. “Martha Danvers. He would call me Mollie, though, when he kissed me.”
Her shadowy eyes chilled further. “He’ll come soon, for you. Never came for me, but that’s no matter now. He’ll come soon and have a taste of it, of what he left me to.”
Elizabeth’s frightened mind flew to Will. “What do you mean? I don’t understand—”
“I thought you’d be a beauty,” Martha Danvers said, lifting a hand and tracing an icy finger across Elizabeth’s chest. “He always had an eye for a comely shape, but you’re just rags and bones.”
“Please,” Elizabeth said, backing away from her cold touch, “this must be some kind of mistake. I can assure you, no one is coming for me. No one knows I am here.”
“Oh, he knows,” Martha said, her dark gaze frosted with envy. “And he’ll do for you what he never did for me, but ’twill be his undoing. Better he had turned for me than you, much better. And he’ll know it ’ere he dies.”
“You’re mistaken,” Elizabeth insisted, heart racing in terrified triumph. “He’s been in London for two months – he can have no idea I’ve been taken, let alone where I am. Your plan has failed; he’s not coming!”
“But he is...” Martha’s chin lifted, eyes suddenly vacant and her lips curling into a cruel smile. “I can feel his terror like a storm brewing, his panic – his hope… He’s coming for you, flying before the wind. Flying before the wind…!”
The air was cooling by the day as they flew north; ’twas an inhospitable season to be leaving the warmth of the Caribbean, and no mistake. He’d doubled the rum ration, but still the crew grumbled as they shivered in their hammocks. Grumbled about the cold, and about the obvious fact there were few prizes to be had so deep into Company territory.
He had no answer for them, had few enough for himself. Every instinct that made him pirate told him to throw Elizabeth Turner to the wind and be done. She’d never brought him anything but grief and death, so why risk mutiny – and the hangman’s noose – to be sailing these waters in pursuit of her?
A swig of rum was the only answer to that question, to all the questions that vexed him. Wiping his mouth he lounged back in his chair, studying the charts laid out before him. If they continued on this heading much longer they might as well sail into Portsmouth harbour itself and hand themselves over to His Majesty’s Customs, so thick was the Fleet around the northern colonies. The crew was getting jumpy, and in truth so was he – the last time he’d sailed these seas had been dark days indeed, and the herald of darker ones to come. He had no desire to revisit those waters.
He scratched absentmindedly at the scrap of lace about his wrist and stared at the compass upon his table.
Rock solid, it pointed north. Not a waiver, not a hesitation. Not any more.
Two years on and there was no denying he still wanted her – couldn’t get the bloody woman out of his mind, nor that tantalising taste of her he’d had. Not for an hour. But that taste had been the kiss of death and he wasn’t sure this was any different. He’d learned long ago that wanting something didn’t always make it worth the having. And he might have been tempted to throw the compass overboard, watch it drown beneath the waves, but for one thing; she had sent the compass to him.
Turner, it seemed, was gallivanting in the streets of London and leaving the beloved Mrs Turner to the mercy of unknown ruffians – her only hope of salvation being the man for whom she had, no doubt, secretly yearned these past two years: one Captain Jack Sparrow. It was an opportune moment, one not to be missed. For once he had her aboard the Pearl, grateful to her heroic saviour, no doubt, who knew what manner of goings-on might ensue? What with young William engaged elsewhere, and otherwise out of mind. After all, had she not wanted him to findher, as it were, she would not have sent him the compass…
He smiled at the notion and swallowed another mouthful of rum. Perhaps they could continue north another few days, a week maybe. Or more.
He’s coming for you…
Was it possible that Will knew where she was, that he was even now charging to her rescue, as he always did? He’d be unaware of the ghostly ship moored offshore, and Elizabeth’s heart quailed. “Please… I’ve known Will Turner all my life, it’s not possible that he’s wronged you. He’s too good of a man, I would know if he’d—”
“Will Turner?” The girl cocked her head, and for an instant her face seemed to flicker, as if caught in the light of a guttering candle and transformed by its shadows into something dark. “Who’s Will Turner?”
Elizabeth frowned and rubbed a hand over her eyes; it had been so long since she’d eaten. “He’s my husband. I assumed…”
“I know nothing of Will Turner,” Martha snapped irritably. “What care I for Will Turner?”
“Well then, you see…?” Elizabeth almost laughed in relief. “You are mistaken. I don’t know who you are, or what you want, but it’s not—”
Martha’s hand gripped Elizabeth’s chin, ten times stronger than she looked. A cold fire blazed in her eyes, outrage upon outrage. “I have waited here a score of years and more for his return. And now he comes for you – only you. Do not mock me, Elizabeth Swann, lest you too partake of his fate.”
“You— How do you know my name?”
She laughed, cold as the grave. “I know everything in the heart of my beloved – my dearest one, my sweet. My Jack.”
“Jack…?” Oh, this was just typical. “Jack Sparrow?”
“He aches for you,” Martha whispered, breath like the cold sea. “Aches for you as I ache for him, hungers for you… Can you not feel it? Can you not feel the heat of it?” She shuddered, eyes half closing in a twisted ecstasy. “Can you not feel him?”
Elizabeth said nothing, using the distraction to cast her eye about the room in search of some kind of weapon. The girl was obviously insane and if she could—
“And now he flies before the wind!” Martha laughed wildly. “Flies before the wind because he hears you calling him!”
“But I’m not—”
“No.” Martha’s eyes flashed open, cruel as the sea. “And the truth will only make the end sweeter; let him think upon that pain when the bite of starvation wracks his belly.”
Her bloodless face was close now, glinting oddly wet, and Elizabeth recoiled; death haunted those baleful eyes.
“’Tis my turn to strike a deal with the Devil,” Martha whispered, “and Jack Sparrow is my coin.”
It seemed to Jack as though he could remember the very waters in which he sailed, as if the waves themselves were familiar and not an ever changing landscape. For here, it had all begun. And ended, in a way. Should have ended...
The wind was racing leeward, driving the spray hard across the deck and into Jack’s face as he stared at the compass. It moved in lazy circles now, as if the Pearl rode at anchor atop the very thing he sought; the thought of her lost beneath the waves turned his hopes to ash. His heart, too.
“Captain!” Gibbs yelled across the lash of the sea. “How long will we hold here?”
“Long enough!” Jack snarled, wiping the spray from his eyes with the back of his hand, and staring again at the compass. Its answer was still the same. Curse it to hell and back.
“There’s shallows to the north-west, captain,” Gibbs persisted. “If we drift…”
“We’ll not drift!” Jack yelled. “And send a man with two eyes to the crows nest; there must be sight of a sail or—”
Gibbs seized his wrist in a strong hand. “Jack,” he said, “she’s not here, lad. There’s naught here but ocean, and rocks beneath her ready to tear into the belly of the Pearl if we drift in these waters.”
“She’s here,” Jack insisted, snapping shut the compass. “Wouldn’t be gentlemanly to leave a lady in such circumstances, eh?”
Gibbs’ grip didn’t loosen. “Even if she’s already—” He bit off the sentence unfinished and Jack wondered if the murder in his eyes had silenced the man. Gibbs gave a short not. “We can hold another day, sir, so long as the weather don’t turn nasty.” A blast of wind-whipped spray lashed them both and Gibbs offered a resigned smile. “Nastier.”
The girl had stirred the fire and crouched next to it now, warming her hands over the meagre heat. Outside it sounded as though a storm was closing in, the shack buffeted by increasingly fierce gusts and the shred of sail serving as a door flapping in and out, in and out.
Earlier, Martha had pressed a chipped cup into Elizabeth’s hands and bade her drink – the brew tasted vile, but it was at least warm and did something to fill the hole in her belly. If it came to an escape, she would need whatever energy was to be had. And, despite the girl’s dire warnings about Jack’s fate, Elizabeth had felt her spirits remarkably buoyed by the news that he was en route.
Jack Sparrow had escaped death itself, and worse. Surely he could best this strange woman and her ghostly companions? A small, fierce smile brought a warmth to Elizabeth’s heart that no fire could kindle, and she knew it was more than rescue she was anticipating. It had been over two years since her wedding, since the day she had last seen him, and she’d missed him. Missed him more than she’d imagined possible, more than she’d ever confessed to Will. And sometimes she wondered if that lock of hair he’d stolen, or perhaps the compass she treasured, had bound them in some way, for there were days when she could almost feel him, as if he were just out of sight and watching her.
A trick of the mind, no doubt, but there was no denying that Captain Jack Sparrow had played on her mind these past years – and often at highly inappropriate moments.
“Drink up,” Martha said, eyeing her over the flames with those dead eyes of hers.
Elizabeth raised her cup in a half hearted salute. “Yo ho.”
There was no response. Martha cocked her head as if listening to something outside, in the storm. “He said my hair would make the mermaids bitter with envy, ’twas so beautiful,” she said suddenly, raking fingers through her tangled locks. “Said I shone everyone else down, he did.”
“Jack has a way with words,” Elizabeth admitted carefully, although truth be told he’d never tried to turn her up sweet in such a manner. Perhaps he knew she would see right through his flattery?
“And not just words,” Martha said softly, her shadowy eyes softening, lost.
Elizabeth felt something like sympathy for this strange girl. “I take it you and Jack were…close?”
The misty expression hardened. “Married, in all but name. And would have been that too, had fate not intervened.”
“Married?” Elizabeth couldn’t keep the incredulity from her voice. “Jack Sparrow?”
Martha drew closer, and Elizabeth almost called out a warning lest she catch her skirts in the fire, but when she looked down the fire was dead. “In the spring time, when the cherry blossoms turned the grass pink, it would have been.” Her expression hardened. “Do you doubt it, Miss Swann?”
“No,” Elizabeth assured her, uneasy under her swift anger. “Not at all.” After a long beat she added, “How did fate intervene?”
Martha drew back and as she turned she seemed to shrivel for a moment, withering like the apple that sat on the nearby table. “A storm,” she said, settling her skirts about her on the ground once more. “A mighty storm, that wrecked the Black Pearl upon the rocks and sent her captain to the Locker.”
“Davy Jones…” Elizabeth whispered, feeling suddenly dizzy. “This is where Jack lost the Pearl?”
“Aye,” Martha said. “An’ a lot more besides.”
When the light started to fail, Jack climbed the rigging himself and hauled Ragetti out of the crows nest, snatching the spyglass from his hand before dispatching the man below. With the Pearl bucking in the chop he needed a hand to brace himself against the mast as he scanned the blank horizon for a sail, for something that might explain where the bloody woman was. There was nothing, nothing but white horses cresting the waves, more so over in the cursed shallows. He’d not be venturing near them again; last time the arrogance of youth and a moonless night in unfamiliar waters had smashed his beloved against those rocks, and he’d not make the same mistake twice. These waters were deathly cold and he’d already cheated them once.
The truth, both unpleasant and probable, suggested that whatever ship had stolen Elizabeth away had foundered on those selfsame treacherous rocks. And that even now, she lay dead beneath his spinning compass.
But Captain Jack Sparrow only had a passing relationship with the truth, and denied it as often as possible. Besides, this had not the feel of truth about it. He caught the braid of her hair, flying in the wind, and ran it between his fingers; he’d not need the compass to tell him when she was gone from this world. He was cursed with the feel of her, night and day, like a whisper in his heart. And he felt her now, close, calling to him…
A snatch of green caught his eye through the sea spray. He dropped the braid and steadied the glass, looking again. Minutes past, he didn’t move. And then he saw it, a scrap of green and grey, solid amid the sea mist. Land. Bloody land!
He vaulted from the crows nest and half fell, half climbed down the rigging, yelling all the while. “Ready the longboat! Gibbs, you have the helm. Two men with me!”
His boots hit the slippery deck with a thud, and he had to cling to the rope to keep from losing his footing. Just long enough to bring Gibbs stalking over the pitching deck. “The longboat? Captain, are you—”
Jack held up a hand to forestall him. “There’s land,” he said. “Nor’ by nor’ east, in the shallows. That’s where she is.”
“Thunder an’ turf, Captain, it’s almost dark!” Gibbs protested. “And in these waters… Are you mad?”
Jack cocked a smile and swayed a little for effect.
“Aye, very well,” Gibbs grumbled, then turned and bellowed orders, pushing a reluctant Pintel and Ragetti ahead of him as the Pearl rolled in the troubled seas. It would be a long reach in this weather, but there was no choice. If Elizabeth was marooned in this wretched place she’d not last long in such cold.
The longboat hit the waves with a smack and almost overset in the swell. But Gibbs held her steady until Jack and the others had boarded. Held her steady a deal longer than that too, as he met Jack’s eyes and in a low voice said, “What are your orders?”
Jack glanced toward the shoals. “Wait until noon, then run south. There’s a tempting armful in Tarpaulin Cove – give her my best and raise a cup to me, eh?”
Gibbs’ eyes lifted to the white-topped shallows and the grey mist that hung about them. “Looks like sharks teeth,” he said grimly. “Keep a weather eye, Captain.”
More than that, Jack thought as Pintel and Ragetti took up the oars. There was death in these waters, he could feel it. He could hear it whispering in the dark and the depths, eager to have a taste of him again – and he was sailing into its maw. How bloody typical that it was at her behest. Again.
Elizabeth Swann, his personal harbinger of catastrophe.
The cup fell from Elizabeth’s fingers and she watched distractedly as it rolled across the dirt floor. Her face was pressed into cold earth and she realised she must have toppled over, but she was too tired – too leaden – to move. Through her canted vision she could see Martha swaying by the fire, singing softly to herself. The melancholy tune was distantly familiar, conjuring images of the terrible flight south, through frozen waters with frozen hearts, and little but Gibbs’ rough voice for cheer.
"And all in the churchyard these two were laid,
And a stone for remembrance was laid on her grave.
My joys are all ended, my pleasures are fled,
This grave that I lie in is my new married bed…”
Elizabeth shivered, with cold and more. She tried to lift her head, to draw closer to the fire, but to her horror found herself unable to move. Her hand lay on the ground before her, almost as though it didn’t belong to her; no matter how hard she willed it, she could not raise a finger.
Panic rose like a spring tide, her heart labouring. She couldn’t even scream. Her eyes fixed on the chipped cup, the bitter taste of the drink coating her mouth. Poison! How could she have been so stupid?
Martha broke off her lament. “He comes now,” she crooned. “Oh, my love… How I long to see you die.”
Frantic, Elizabeth struggled to move. To shout a warning! But it was impossible.
“You cannot warn him,” Martha said, rising. “Don’t you know you are all but dead, Miss Swann? Don’t take long in the cold, upon such a spit of land as this. With naught to eat or drink for a week. Cold kills slow and sweet, like sleep. But the hunger makes the devil of you.” She laughed at that. “The very devil!”
Elizabeth could do nothing but breathe, it seemed she couldn’t even close her eyes against the image of the girl smoothing down her ragged dress. Suddenly Martha turned toward the door and the meagre fire was snuffed like a candle, plunging the shack into darkness. “He is here…”
If she had been able to turn her head, Elizabeth would have looked to the door. Instead, all she could see was the blocky shapes of rags clumped in the far corner and beyond them an odd wisp of grey light. The ghostly crew who had brought her here, perhaps, as seen through a crack in the hovel’s walls.
A cold wind suddenly tugged at her nightgown, and she realised she was frozen to the core of her bones. Too cold to shiver, too cold to move at all. Too cold to think. Surely her mind was failing her now, because it appeared she could see a bright moon darting out from behind swift-moving clouds. Its silver light etched the jagged edge of the now roofless hovel and it seemed as though she were outside. The night was filled with the roaring crash of waves breaking against a rough shore, the air was icy with sea spray, and she was alone.
Martha Danvers was gone. The shack was gone. And Elizabeth lay like bait upon the bare rock.
Behind her there was a crunch of boots on shale. A flicker of orange torchlight fell across her hand – Jack Sparrow had arrived.
It was barely an island, a notched blade of rock amid a mouthful of shark’s teeth. Even in the longboat he’d had to navigate slow, to keep her hull clear of the jagged predators. But there was one sheltered crevice and a sloping fall of shale – enough to bring the boat far enough out of the water to secure her.
Jack leaped ashore and let his men do the securing while he scratched for a flint to light the torch. The moon was in and out like a harlot tonight, and he didn’t trust her light. Not for this task.
As the torch guttered into flame he scrambled up onto the spine of the island, a few wretched tuffs of grass the only sign of life. The wind was fierce, tearing at the fragile torchlight, making it near impossible to see. Pintel and Ragetti pressed close behind, catching the scent of danger in the air; the familiar stench of death and the devil. One of them crossed himself, muttering beneath his breath.
As if in answer, the clouds were torn from before the moon and the island was bathed in silver. Jack stopped, frozen. A body lay curled not twenty yards away, her white shift iridescent in the moonlight.
“I know.” But he didn’t move. Couldn’t right away, because if he found her cold and rigid in death… To Hell with it, if he found her so then he’d take her to the Devil himself to trade for her life. In the space between two heartbeats he was moving, slip-sliding over the rock. “Elizabeth…” Her name fell from his lips like a prayer; the first he’d uttered in two-score years or more.
He seized her shoulder and she was cold beneath the thin muslin. In dreadful anticipation he rolled her over until he could see her face. Deathly pale, her features were slack and her eyes stared sightlessly at the sky. For a horrifying eternity he thought it was a death mask and felt the world end, but then her lips faintly moved. Breath tight in his lungs he pressed desperate fingers to her throat, searching for the beat of life. And there it was, a thready flutter – ’twas enough to send him to church. Almost.
He lifted her head, tried to meet her unfocused gaze. “Elizabeth? Can you hear me?”
Her lips moved again, a dry whisper that he couldn’t make out.
“Half frozen,” he muttered, struggling out of his coat. “Pintel!” Between them they hauled her up so she was leaning heavily against Jack and he wrapped his coat about her shoulders, holding her close. The fierce thump of his heart was half anxiety, half something else; he’d hankered to hold her thus for three years, but this was hardly what he’d had in mind.
“She’s got the look of the thirst about her,” Pintel said roughly, peering at her sallow face. “I reckon as she’s been supping the briny.”
Jack ignored the truth in the old dog’s words. “Get back to the boat. Make ready.” And then he lifted her, just a scrap of nothing in his arms, her head flopping helplessly against his shoulder. “You’ll be right enough once we get back to the Pearl, love,” he murmured in her ear. “A little rum’s all you need to ward of the chill.”
He turned, stepping carefully now on the slick rock as he made his way back to the longboat. Pintel had the torch ten yards ahead of him, like a wil-o-the-wisp, bobbing and guttering in the wind. Suddenly, from the corner of his eye, Jack saw a flutter of grey mist. He stopped on instinct, still as the rock, only his eyes moving in the direction of the movement. Nothing. Then a soft, barely audible whisper cut through the wind – like mutinous discussions below decks.
“Mary Mother of God!” Pintel squawked from the beach. “Captain!”
Jack turned. A wall of grey mist cut off the longboat. No, not mist, something else. A wall of grey… Oh bugger it to hell. Ghosts? Spectres? What the devil were they? “Not good.”
“Hello, my love.”
The cold voice came from behind; a voice that had haunted him these fifteen years. His heart stopped, choked by a rising tide of guilt. Impossible, was his first thought. Undesirable, was his second. Slowly, slowly he turned around until… His breath caught. “Mollie…”
She stood before him, hands on hips, her raven hair limned with silver as the moon dashed out from behind a cloud. Just as he remembered her, not a day older. Unchanged, but for the emptiness about the eyes. “You never came back for me, Jack,” she said, stepping closer. “I waited and waited, but you never came back.”
Behind her a shifting, whispering crew stood watch – or awaited the order to strike, perhaps? Their faces were indistinct, a blur of expressions unfixed by life. Jack eased backward, shifting Elizabeth in his arms, wishing he were free to draw his sword. “I thought you drowned, love,” he said carefully. “With the others. With the Pearl…”
“That’s a bag o’ moonshine, Jack Sparrow.” Her face fell into darkness. “I no more drowned than you did.”
He glanced over his shoulder and found himself encircled by the ghostly crew. Pintel and Ragetti were nowhere to be seen; with luck they were still waiting on the beach and hadn’t stolen the longboat and pulled for the Pearl with all haste. He turned his attention back to Mollie. “You’ll forgive me for saying, given the company you’re keeping, that I’m not entirely persuaded that you didn’t. Drown, that is.”
“Seventeen days,” Martha said, closing on him. “Seventeen days I waited here, sucking the rain from the rocks to quench the desperate thirst, waiting on you Jack. My love. Waiting to see a black sail upon the horizon.”
He felt a sudden, sick horror. If she spoke the truth, if he’d unknowingly marooned her here…? “I didn’t know.”
“Jack?” The murmur, close to his face, pierced his soul. He glanced down into Elizabeth’s determined eyes. “I can stand.”
The swell of feeling in his chest at that moment wasn’t something upon which he dared dwell, so he chose to ignore it in favour of poise. Smoothly he lowered her to the ground, but kept a bracing arm about her waist; he could sense her weakness in the sway of her lithe body against his. At least, that’s what he told himself. And, for once, the feel of her so close didn’t distract from the crisis at hand.
With care, Jack drew his sword. “If there’s a debt to be paid, ’tis between you and me, love. Eliz— Mrs Turner has no part in this.”
From behind, someone yanked his hair, jerking him backward. He spun around, dragging Elizabeth with him. Ghostly figures hovered close behind, plucking at him with wispy fingers, hollow eyes promising no mercy. Jack batted them away with his sword; ’twas as useless as fighting fog.
“A debt?” Martha’s voice was startlingly close, causing him to turn again. He lost his grip on Elizabeth in the process, her knees buckled and she collapsed to her hands and knees. He dared not help her to her feet. “Yes, there’s a debt indeed, my beloved.”
“As it happens,” Jack said, “I’ve been somewhat focused on me honest profession these past two years and accumulated a fair few trinkets along the way. A debt is never so easily settled as with Spanish gold, eh? What’s your price?”
“Price?” Martha almost spat the word. “What use have I for your gold and trinkets? You stole my life, Jack Sparrow. Our debt is not paid until I have it back.”
He lifted an eyebrow. “And how do you suggest—?”
She reached out and seized his arm. Her icy touch burned his skin, her fingers stronger than any woman’s had a right to be. “Don’t think I don’t know what you traded in exchange for the Black Pearl. Don’t think I don’t know you spared your ship, while you left me here to die.”
“First,” Jack said, through gritted teeth, “I thought you already drowned, although clearly I was mistaken – my apologies. Second, I made the best deal I could; my life and the Pearl, or no life at all. Savvy?”
“You left your crew to die here.”
“No,” he yanked at her burning grip, but couldn’t pull free. “No, they were already dead. You can’t bargain for dead men.”
“Don’t you recognise these faces?” Martha hissed softly, gesturing at the shifting phantoms around her. “Mister Andrews? José Martínez? Bartholomew Withers?”
Jack’s gaze flicked around nervously. “Oh.”
Near his feet Elizabeth attempted to rise, but canted sideways with a soft curse.
“You stole our lives,” Martha accused, “and we want them back.”
“All of them? Am I so valuable, then?” He considered it a moment. “Yes, I suppose I am.”
Martha pulled him closer, close enough that her dank cheek brushed against his. “I would have thought you so once,” she breathed, grazing fetid lips against his. He flinched back, but she would not let him go far. “Now, all I see is rotting flesh.”
Suddenly Elizabeth gasped. “Jack…” She was staring in revulsion at a pile of rags not a foot away from where she sat; the bleak moonlight revealed a corpse, the desiccated remains of a woman. “She’s dead.”
Jack couldn’t prevent a shudder of disgust as he yanked his arm free, staggering a couple of steps backward. And, as he watched, Martha began to change – seemed to merge with the ragged heap of bones, jerking it to its feet like a macabre marionette. With a yelp of horror, Elizabeth scrambled backward and Jack grabbed her hand, hauling her upright as Martha Danvers writhed, shrieking before their eyes. Hollow cheeked, sunken eyed, Martha’s mouth was agape as her raven locks disintegrated into dead strands; he watched her starve before his eyes. “Now that’s interesting…”
This is how she died.
Slowly, agonisingly, and alone – marooned here as he bargained with the Devil for his life. He was not so black-hearted that he didn’t feel the guilt of it. She’d followed him to sea, after all, believing herself in love; a belief he’d taken care to nurture for his own pecuniary gain. Her death was on his hands, no doubt, and he’d long worn her lace in remembrance. “I’m sorry,” he said, and meant it. “Had I’d known…”
Martha – what had once been Martha – turned her empty eyes on him. “Too late,” she said, her voice the crack of old bone. “The bargain is made, payment is due.”
Her skeletal head bobbed toward the ghostly crew, summoning them forward. “Bring them. Our time is come.” With a hiss of terrible triumph, the ghostly crew fell upon them – a battle charge of the dead, cold and wrathful. Icy fingers plucked and poked, angry, inaudible whispers flitted past his fog-blind eyes, and the only warmth left in the world was the fierce grip of Elizabeth’s hand in his.
He clutched it like life itself as they were swept away into the night.
In the falling dark, Gibbs could see nothing. And it weren’t the fault of the rum this time. The moon hid her light more often than not, and a dank mist had come up that boded ill. Not that the sea had calmed any, and the Pearl bucked at her anchor like a spooked horse.
He shared the feeling as he leaned against the rail and kept an ear – in lieu of an eye – out for the captain’s return.
“’Tis a right unnatural fog,” Marty grumbled at his side.
“Aye,” Gibbs agreed, reaching for a swallow of rum. “An unnatural night altogether.”
“Unnatural to be so far north,” Marty persisted. “With no thought of takin’ a prize.”
Gibbs cast the man a look. “The captain knows what he’s about,” he snapped. “‘Tis no time to be testy – we’re all carrying heavy purses thanks to his good fortune these past years.”
“An’ a lot o’ good it’ll do us on the gallows.”
“Have some faith, man.”
There was a pause, then, “I heard as he’s up here chasing the woman. Planning to seize her from Bootstrap’s boy after all.”
“Then you heard—”
A shout from the foggy sea cut him off. “Mister Gibbs! God have mercy, Mister Gibbs…!”
He flung a look at Marty who said, “Ragetti.”
Grabbing a lantern, Gibbs held it high to aid the longboat in its return as he shouted a greeting. After some moments he saw the outline of the boat emerge from the mist, its oars working frantically. And only two men aboard. “Where’s Jack?”
Ragetti turned around, face pallid in the moonlight. “Taken! By ghosts!”
“Ghosts?” Gibbs crossed himself. “What kind of ghosts?”
“Bad news, these waters.” Marty muttered to himself. “Bad news…”
Not the most reliable members of the ship’s company, Gibbs had to peer into the face of both men once he’d hauled them aboard, to satisfy himself of their honesty. “Ghosts…” he repeated at length, pacing before the two of them. “And where did these ‘ghosts’ take the captain?”
Ragetti shook his head. “They didn’t say.”
“Well, did they…?” Gibbs floundered a moment. “Did they move in any particular direction?”
“Just seemed to swallow the captain and Miss Swann whole an’ disappear into the mist… Right spooky.”
Gibbs stopped his pacing. “She was there?”
“Oh yes,” Ragetti nodded enthusiastically. “All sickly lookin’, but there right enough. Last I saw, the captain had her in his arms all noble like.”
Gibbs resisted the urge to roll his eyes. “It’s Mrs. Turner,” he said instead, “not Miss Elizabeth.” And it was ill news, whatever the name of the bloody woman. He glanced out into the ghostly fog; his orders were to remain until noon the next day, but under the circumstances…?
“Sail ho! To starboard!” A voice yelled from the crows nest. “Mary, mother of…”
Gibbs crossed the deck in a flash, the others on his heels. He slowed to a halt before he reached the rail, for there not two hundred yards off their starboard bow glowed a red light, in the heart of which were outlined the mast and spars of a ship under full sail. “Saints preserve us…”
All around him he could hear the panicked mutter of men cursing, spitting and performing all manner of other protections against such an ill-omened sighting. But all that Gibbs could think was that Captain Jack Sparrow was aboard that unholy ship.
As she sailed athwart their bow and out into the black night, Gibbs found himself gradually surrounded by the silent crew of the Pearl. His hand rested for a moment upon his flask, but he resisted the temptation; he faced a choice, they all did.
In a voice loud enough the carry, he said, “Captain Jack fell behind, carried off to who knows where by that ghostly ship. His last orders were to run south, to Tarpaulin Cove, and lie low. Now, the question before the company, gentlemen, is this: Do we follow those orders? Or do we not…?”
Although it was night, there was a strange phosphorescent glow in the brig that cast everything in a grey light. Elizabeth sat with her back to the hull, knees drawn up to her chest and Jack’s coat pulled tight about her shoulders. She relished the warmth of it, studiously ignoring his evocative, unwashed aroma that was far more alluring than it had any right to be.
Jack himself stood at the bars, peering out into the empty hold. If he was cold, it didn’t show. He looked the same as he ever did, swathed in trinkets and belts, sashes and charms, as though he carried his whole life about him. Which, she supposed, he did.
“They won’t come back,” she said after a while. “Not until we get to wherever it is they’re taking us.”
He turned when she spoke, fixing her with a serious look. “You need food and water.”
The genuine concern in his voice surprised her. “I feel… She gave me something, on the island. At least, I think she did. Some kind of draft. I thought it was poison when I found I couldn’t move, but perhaps it was something else. I feel cold, but otherwise well.”
His head cocked. “Perhaps you do look a mite less deathly.”
“I presume she wants us both alive when we arrive.”
He agreed with a nod, and after a moment came to sit close by her. Far closer than was appropriate, though she found herself guiltily enjoying the brush of his arm against hers. “So I hear young William’s in London.”
She smiled at the young William. “He’s rising fast in the Colonial Service, with my father’s help of course.”
“Of course.” Jack cut her an amused glance. “He’s not working for His Majesty’s Customs, I hope?”
“If he were,” she countered, “I’d hardly be likely to tell you.”
He smiled and looked away, a warm glint of gold in the cold light. “Another reason to avoid Port Royal, eh?”
“You never needed to,” she said quietly, remembering with a pang the pain of their last parting. She pulled her knees closer, resting her chin upon them. “I always look for a black sail upon the horizon, when I’m out walking on the cliffs. We often talk of you, Jack.”
He didn’t answer right away, and when he did his tone was strained. “Wondering if I’d been set a sun-drying with a stretched neck, no doubt.”
“Fearing it.” She looked over at him and found him watching at her with so much—
He glanced away before she could identify the emotion. “I’m Captain Jack Sparrow,” he said softly. “Don’t forget that, love.”
As if she ever could. After a pause she said, “What do you think Martha means to do with us?”
Jack sighed, his head dropping back to knock against the ghostly hull. “I don’t plan on finding out,” he said. “Although I think it’s me she’s interested in, love. No offence. I believe you were just bait.”
“Yes, and thank you for that, Jack. It seems you are the root of all the vexations in my life!”
“I think you’ll find the boot is quite on the other leg, darling,” he said, with a great deal of feeling. “Although, I bear you no ill will for embroiling me in this latest misadventure.”
“I embroil you?” She snorted, lifting her chin; the man was incessantly provoking. “I was the one kidnapped from my bed by… By one of your former dalliances! Transported halfway across the world, half-starved, half-frozen, and left on a bare rock in the middle of the ocean!”
He conceded the point with a slight shrug. “I had no part in that, love. I was tucked up in bed, all by me onesie, savvy? But you…” There was a light in his eyes now, smouldering on the point of combustion. “Now you sent me this here trinket and begged for me help, eh?”
In his hand, she realised, he held the compass he’d given her on the eve of her wedding. Her eyes went wide.
“So, when it comes to embroiling, I’d say things were pretty much even on that score, wouldn’t you?”
Her jaw opened and closed a couple of times, and when she looked up from the compass she saw the first hint of doubt in his eyes. “I didn’t send it to you, Jack.”
It was like looking at a reflection in a breaking mirror; his face shifted through shock and disenchantment until it settled into self-mocking comprehension, an expression she’d only ever seen once before – and had never wanted to see again. A corner of his mouth curved into a bitter smile. “Of course you didn’t.”
“How did you—?”
Deft fingers spirited the compass away, his expression shutting down into intent concentration. “A chicken-faced wench by the name of Kitty Bullen.”
Elizabeth sucked in a short, shocked breath. “My housemaid.”
“Not anymore, I’ll warrant. No doubt she got a heavy purse for her part in this, and is off enjoying the wages of her sins.”
“Are you saying she stole the compass?”
“Stole it, sold it. And her services too, I imagine.”
“Because Martha knew it would lead you—” Understanding crashed in like a wave, sending Elizabeth’s heart tumbling in the surf. After all this time, the compass still pointed to her? She had not imagined him capable of such…loyalty.
Jack rolled abruptly to his feet, pacing to the far side of the cell and staying there, gazing out into the hold again. “There’s a chance the Pearl will come after us,” he said. “Depending on whether or not Gibbs feels like following my orders.”
It took a moment before she could be certain her voice was even. “You ordered him to follow?”
“I ordered him not to. But he never listens to half of what I tell him.”
They fell into an awkward silence, Jack’s casual lean against the bars – as far away from her as possible – too tense to be plausible. Carefully, Elizabeth rose and took a cautious step closer. “Jack, I—”
“You should get some rest, love. While you can. Who knows what manner of unpleasantness we’re in for? You’ll need a sharp eye and a quick hand.”
He didn’t turn around while he spoke, radiating tension like a man facing the gallows. And she was seized by an overwhelming impulse to slip her arms about his waist and hold him tight against her – just as she would Will, on those days where frustrations made him bullish and irritable. The strength of that desire – the intimacy of it – was shocking; Jack Sparrow was not, and never could be, her husband. And yet…
Oh, and yet her heart ached dangerously to see him so disheartened. And to know, should she choose it, that she had the power to comfort him.
Elizabeth slept curled on her side, hands pillowing a face half lost beneath her bedraggled tangle of hair. Still beautiful. More so, to his eye, when free of the frills and fancies of society. Weariness painted her face in stark shadows, and despite the years and rejections he still yearned to travel the sharp lines and angles of her limbs with a lover’s touch. He could undo her like a coiled rope, he knew it. Set her free. In his mind’s eye he saw her at the bow of the Pearl, golden beneath the sun, arms raised and laughing in the teeth of the wind.
It was where she belonged, though she stubbornly refused to see it.
He permitted a sigh, but no more. Such sighings were the very things that had brought him here in the first place; his better half – the true pirate in his soul – had known that anything appended with the name ‘Turner’ boded ill. His gut instinct had been right; throw the compass in the sea and be done. Yet he’d allowed himself to hope, believed that she had called him to her. To be so fooled, twice…
Lifting the compass, he studied it in the ghostly light of the ship. It pointed relentlessly toward her, as if he needed to be told.
Every man had his weakness, he supposed. Davy Jones’ had been his heart, locked away in a box; Jack’s was the bloody compass, spilling all his secrets. If not for the cursed thing, Martha Danvers would never have known of Elizabeth Swann – and bugger it, if that wasn’t her true name – and he wouldn’t be sitting here, being spirited away to who knew which level of hell. Again.
The compass dangled from its cord, swaying backward and forward with the roll of the ship, and he contemplated crushing it beneath the heel of his boot. There’d be some satisfaction in that, at least. Or perhaps he could smash it against the side of the ship, bash its little mystical innards out like a dead bird. No, too noisy. Maybe—
He was suddenly aware of a cold presence drifting grey in the corner of his eye. Without lowering the dangling compass, he turned his head, recoiling slightly at the sight before him. Two men – defining the term as broadly as possibly – stood outside the brig, their shifting faces staring at him as if in some attempt to convey meaning.
“A little rum,” he said, waving a hand to shoo them on their way. “Not too rough, mind. Smooth as it comes, eh?”
Inevitably they didn’t move. With an exaggerated sigh he climbed back to his feet. “I take it this is a summons?”
One figure lifted an arm and pointed aft, toward a set of stairs.
“Ah.” Without either apparition moving, the door to his cell swung open. Jack cast a swift glance over his shoulder and saw Elizabeth watching him from the shadows, poised for action. Briefly he toyed with the idea of escape, but unless the Pearl was within hailing distance – unlikely – they had nowhere to go. Who knew what waters they sailed in now, or even if they were still in the world of the living. He gave a slight shake of his head and watched her settle back, wide-eyed and anxious, as he stepped out of the brig. The cell closed behind him with a soft clunk of iron.
He eyed the ghosts a moment before, with a bravado entirely for Elizabeth’s benefit, he said, “Go on then, take me to your leader.”
A scream, the like of which she’d never heard, pierced the hull of the phantom ship.
“Jack…?” His name came out a rasping whisper as Elizabet rose to her feet and moved to the bars, clutching the cold iron.
There was no other sound. He’d been gone close to an hour now, as far as she could reckon. Could have been longer, could have been less; time moved strangely here. But that cry – that terrible cry – was the only sound she’d heard since he’d swaggered to the steps without a backward glance.
She stumbled suddenly, the ship pitching beneath her feet as if hauling sharp to port. They were changing direction. Elizabeth felt her pulse quicken as the ship seemed to pick up speed, like a hound on the scent.
Moving to the back of the cell, she peered through a crack in the hull to see a flicker of what might have been dawn light. Her heart hardly knew whether to rise or fall, and settled on fluttering uneasily between. The night was over, but what would the day bring?
A noise startled her, footsteps on the stairs, and she darted back to the bars. It was Jack, moving unsteadily toward her, half supported – if it were possible – by the ghostly apparitions. He looked dreadful, almost as pallid as the phantoms themselves, and so weak it seemed an effort for him to stand. “What have they done…?” she whispered as the door swung open.
He stumbled forward, and Elizabeth caught hold of him. But she couldn’t support his weight and he dropped to his knees, dragging her down with him. “Jack?” Her hands was tight about his shoulders. “What happened?”
A spare smile touched his lips. “It’s done,” he said, with more softness than she’d expected. “The deal is done.”
His fingers lifted in a vague wave. “Sleep now,” he said, toppling sideways. She only just caught his head before it cracked on the deck.
“Oh Jack…” Carefully, she lifted his head into her lap, brushing hesitant fingers across his ashen brow. “What have you done?”
But there was no answer; he slept like the dead.
She must have slept too, because the sharp report of canon fire awoke her with a violent start. Jack too, was half on his feet before the echo faded. And then he sank back, noticed where he’d been laying, and cast her a curious look. Stupidly, she felt herself blush, but before she could speak Jack said,
“Get ready. It’s the Pearl.”
A jolt of fierce joy made her grin. “Are you sure?”
“I’d know those guns anywhere, love.” He still looked sallow, his eyes darker than ever. “We won’t have long. If we’re board-and-board, just jump the rail. Otherwise look for a line, or a longboat. Savvy?”
She nodded. “What about you? You hardly seem able to stand.”
“I’m well enough.” As if to prove the point, he pushed himself upright. She pretended not to notice his white-knuckled grip on the bars of their cell – all that kept him on his feet. “Listen,” he said before she could comment. “Here they come.”
The sound of booted feet beat on the deck above, rough shouts accompanying the noise. “Down here!” Elizabeth yelled. “We’re down here!”
A clatter of feet on the stairs, and then Gibbs’ face appeared. He smiled when he saw them. “Captain!”
“Thought I told you to run south,” Jack said, keeping a tight hold on the bars while he spoke.
Gibbs shrugged. “Can’t say as I remember that order.”
“Can’t say as I mind,” Jack conceded with a smile, reaching through the bars to grip Gibbs’ arm. “Good man.”
“Aye. And mad, to be leaping aboard a cursed ship such as this.”
“Both wholesome traits in a pirate,” Jack smiled. Then, more serious, “Don’t suppose you happen to have a key about your person?”
Gibbs raised his pistol. “Only this one.”
“Good enough.” He nodded to Elizabeth. “Step back.”
She did so, coming to stand close to Jack. Close enough to see shadows beneath his eyes; exhaustion, she thought. Nothing more. The crack of the pistol barely made her jump, but the creak of the opening door made her grin. “Come on,” she said, tugging on Jack’s arm as she headed for freedom.
But he moved slowly, swaying without affectation, his hand never far from the supporting bars of the brig.
“What in God’s name happened to you?” Gibbs asked immediately. “Are you wounded, Captain?”
“No.” Jack waved him ahead with a flap of his hand. “How close is the Pearl?”
“Not very.” Gibbs glanced around at the eerie ship. “Didn’t want to risk it, sir.”
Jack nodded his understanding, but seemed too breathless to answer. “Longboat,” he managed at last, both an instruction and a question.
“Aye,” Gibbs nodded. “Several. Came up through their own unnatural fog. Took ’em by surprise.”
Elizabeth doubted it was possible to surprise ghosts in such a way, but let the question rest. They were here, which was all that mattered. She was at the foot of the steps now and glanced up, realising she couldn’t hear the usual clamour of battle. Her gaze dropped to Gibbs. “What’s going on?”
“That’s the strange part,” he said in a low voice. “I thought the buggers would fight like the devil, but they barely raised a hand. Just stood back and let us pass.”
“Unnatural good luck,” she said softly. “We might find it more difficult to leave.”
“’Twas my thought too.” Gibbs’ gaze once more fell on Jack, who had joined them at the bottom on the steps with one hand pressed to his belly. He seemed to be hiding some degree of pain.
“Something’s wrong with you,” Elizabeth insisted, turning away from the ladder and trying to pry his shirt loose. “Let me see—”
His fingers on her wrist were as strong as ever, yanking her hand away. “You don’t get to do that, love.”
“I was trying to see if you were—”
His eyes went dark, chin dipping until he was looking at her from beneath his brow. “Don’t touch me again.”
Angry, she pulled her arm free. “Fine,” she spat. “Die of some festering wound and see if I care.”
His only answer was a bitter smile. “Get her to the longboat,” he told Gibbs.
“I’ll be there,” Jack promised, gritting his teeth and straightening. Elizabeth looked, but there was no sign of any blood on his shirt. “Now go, while we can.”
Gibbs all but dragged Elizabeth up the stairs behind him, pressing his pistol into her hand as he did so. “Just in case,” he said as they reached the top deck.
Men from the Pearl stood in a rough circle about the hatch, eyeing the ghostly crew nervously. She recognised Ragetti and Pintel immediately, their ugly faces sparking a dozen contrasting memories; not all of them were pleasant, but all of them were vivid as fire on a dark night.
“Miss Swann,” Ragetti grinned. “Terrible bother all this, abduction by ghostly pirates an’ all. Still, not the first time, eh?”
“No,” she agreed, her eyes searching the phantoms for a sight of Martha, her pistol raised and steady – for what little good it would do. But there was no sign of her.
“To the boats!” Gibbs yelled. “Let’s get our hides off this ship o’the damned…”
“But where’s the captain—?”
Elizabeth was about to answer Ragetti when Jack’s deep voice cut her off.
“Right here,” he called, and to her astonishment he was standing tall on the ship’s rail, one hand braced heroically against the rigging. “You pitiful, ill-look’d dogs! Get back to me ship and make her ready. I want to make landfall by dusk.”
A ragged, nervous cheer scattered through his crew as they broke rank and dashed for the rail, scrambling down into the longboats with evident glee.
Elizabeth followed them, but her eyes remained fixed on Jack. And it was only because she was watching so closely that she saw him hunch briefly in pain, his hands gripping the rail too tight before he let go and slithered down the ladder into the waiting longboat.
Behind her the otherworldly whispering rose, a discordant chatter that sounded disturbingly like triumph. And the last thing she saw as she clambered over the side of the ship was the dark figure of Martha Danvers striding through her phantom crew.
Her pretty mouth curved into an ecstatic, expectant smile and from one hand dangled the familiar shape of Jack Sparrow’s compass.
Continued in Chapter Four