The crew of the Black Pearl learn the peril of repeating folklore...and that those in them are real people.
Later, that night, as was customary after the crew’s mess, the men gathered on deck. The rum was passed, and the stories began to roll forth. Kate had spent the bulk of the day in the cabin, embroidering. Truth be known, she was avoiding everyone, fearful of their reaction to her past, discovering who she was and what she had been. Much of the crew were British by birth, and it would be natural for them to bare animosity toward anyone who had taken part in an attempt to overthrow their king. To her, it seemed a lifetime ago, but in reality, the Rising was only a few years past. In many places, emotions and biases still ran high, and she feared confrontations. It was easy for her to imagine Jack, yielding to pressures from his men, turning her over to the authorities for the reward.
But now, it was evening and she felt the need for a stretch and fresh air. It was dark and she took security in that; she wouldn’t have to look at their faces, and they would not have to see hers.
She moved quietly to her favorite place by the rail, between two of the deck guns. There, the evening breeze collected and offered a good view of the water and stars. Tonight was no different. The air was a luscious, velvety warm and soft. With the easy wind, the waves were relatively flat, the water glittered with light from the high vault of stars overhead. She settled on the deck, leaning against the cool iron of the gun and tipped her head back to feel the breeze against her throat. Caribbean nights were unique.
She was near enough to hear the men talking, spinning their yarns. Slightly reclined, she closed her eyes, and tried to visual the fantastic tales of raucous conquests, improbable monsters and demonic ghosts.
She must have dozed for a bit, because as she roused she slowly became aware of a familiar tale that gave her a chill.
“Aye, ‘twas just after Stirling, on the Plains o’ Glenfiddich, where the redcoats caught up with the armies of Bonnie Prince Charlie.”
She inwardly groaned. There was no mistaking the heavy brogue of a Highland accent; it was Mr. Cameron. Nor was there any mistaking a Highlander building up to weave his own fantastic version of the truth.
“The redcoats had ‘em surrounded, so Colin McKenzie rallied his men, chargin’ into the cannons o’ the redcoats.” His voice was low and steady, building his drama “There was screamin’ and dyin’ and heathers ran red w’ the blood. Colin led his men to the left and Red Brian split ‘round to the right, and caught the redcoats in crossfire. But the power of the redcoats was too great, and they pressed forward, until Colin and Red Brian were in near peril o’ their lives. And then, like a banshee, the Witch o’ the Moors swept down across the plains. She flew to Red Brian, thinkin’ him to be her love, Colin McKenzie, and struck down four of the British. Then, realizin’ her mistake, leapt over the British cannons to Colin’s side o’ the battle and struck down four more British with her staff…”
Frustration and rage poured over her.
Why can’t the stories ever stop? Why can’t they just leave it alone?
Hot tears rolled down her cheeks, pooling into the corners of her mouth. Before she knew it, or was able to stop, she was on her feet, striding toward the group. Barefooted, her steps were nearly silent on the wood of the deck. The men fell silent upon seeing her halt at their group’s fringe.
“It wasn’t eight men I killed.” Her voice caught, thickened with tears. “It was three.”
Exchanging nervous glances, the men hunched under her stare. One by one, she looked at them, but she saw something beyond the seamen. Instead, she saw kilted men, an army moving to a mixed chorus of sounds, marching under cloud-scudded skies.
“We had been marching for weeks, the entire army of Bonnie Prince Charlie. The British were hard on our trail; it was only a matter of time before they caught up. It was March; it was cold and had been raining or snowing for days. We were all in mud near to our knees. The horses were tiring quickly, as were we all.”
She paused, shifting, batting her hair back, behind her shoulders. Remotely, she heard a soft jingle and the thud of boots behind her, but paid no mind, so lost in her own visions.
“The camp followers, the women and a few children, were exhausted. For days, none of us had anything but cold water and oats to eat. Colin, my husband's uncle, and some of the other officers decided it would be best if we chose the ground instead of His Majesty's Army choosing it for us.”
She stopped again, straining to sort out the memories that tumbled in; mental pictures she had stored away for so long and yet possessed such clarity as to make them seem recent. The deck was hushed, save the Pearl's own sounds, ropes creaking, an occasional errant slap of a wave on the hull.
“We came to an open plain, of sorts. They, Colin and the other officers, decided it was where we would make our stand. There was a bit of a hill to one side; the women and children were sent up there, to be out of danger… and to be able to see, to watch.”
Her hand shook as she pulled a piece of hair from the corner of her mouth, and she made a tight fist, trying to control it. The effort only forced the shaking to spread, down her body and legs. Suddenly, she felt a chill, the hair on her arms prickling as the wind in the Pearl's rigging became the wind across the open moor. She clutched her arms tightly around her middle, as she on that plain that very day.
“The dragoons formed their lines at the far end. Some of our officers dismounted; they liked to charge on foot with their men. They lined up just below the hill. At the first British cannon barrage, our men charged.”
The recollections were tumbling in faster now, sounds and smells. The faces on the deck, staring at her in rapt attention merged with those in her mind, blurring the lines between now and then.
“At first, our men had the advantage, the British fell back. I could make out Brian, on the right. It was easy to pick him out; he was big and tall, and red-haired. He was doing well fighting, as he always did. He claimed it was luck and providence, but it always seemed to be more than that. Colin was on the left; he was nearly as big and red as Brian, but I knew the difference.” She took a quivering breath. “It’s strange how things go so quickly when men are fighting, and yet everything seems to be in slow-motion. The battle went well, for a bit, and then I could see the dragoons and foot soldiers starting to advance. They were pushing closer and closer on the right toward Brian. It was only a matter of minutes before they were going to be on top of him.”
She stopped, swallowed, her hand trembling harder as she brushed away tears tracking down one side of her face. In her own ears, she knew her voice had fallen to a near whisper, the men straining to hear, but her chest and throat were too tight to be allow the words to be squeezed out any louder.
“I don’t know what happened,” she went on, her voice quavering. “All I remember is running down the hill, grabbing the first horse; it turned out to be Colin’s black gelding. I jumped on and rode as hard as I could. Somewhere, I picked up a sword. It must have been sticking up from the ground; I don’t know how else I would have gotten it. I rode as hard as I could toward Brian. The soldiers were on him by then, and I ran over one with the horse. I heard the crunch of his skull under the hooves. That was the first one.” Her fingers closed, feeling the leather of the reins in her hand. “The horse’s momentum took me to nearly the other side of the battle. As I turned him—the horse, that is—another soldier went down under the hooves and was trampled. That was the second one.”
Her breathing was coming faster now, as she felt the heave of the horse’s sides underneath the saddle, between her legs.
“I rode as hard as I could back to Brian. There was a dragoon, dismounted for some reason, charging toward him with his sword up over his head, ready to hack him in half. I saw light reflecting on the blade, and wondered where it came from, because it was such a cloudy day. I swung my sword down, as hard as I could.” Her hand mimicked a vague downward, chopping motion. “I could feel the blade as it hit bone. It twisted my whole arm, and pulled the handle loose from my hand. That was the third.”
Her breathing quickened more, her words faster. Her hand shook so hard she could barely manage to knuckle away several more tears.
“It was all so much a blur, but I can still see it,” she went on, her voice beginning to crack. “I tried to ride back toward Brian, but someone grabbed the reins and jerked the horse over. I rolled backward off the saddle, and landed face down in the mud. As I pushed myself up, I could see boots in front of my face. Just as he swung down I think he realized I was a woman, and he turned the blade, so that the flat of it hit me instead of the edge.”
Sucking in sharply, she held her breath, feeling the cold of the steel across her back and the shattering pain once again. Her eyes slid over the faces of those before her, the light from the lanterns flickering across their features. She looked at Hughes and Cameron, their gazes turned away, lost in their own nightmarish memories. No one moved; even the Pearl had fallen quieter.
“I don’t remember anything after that,” she choked. “I woke up in a farmhouse, somewhere nearby. It hurt. God, it hurt horribly! There was nothing to help, not even whiskey, nothing. I could hear men screaming; they were suffering so much more than I was.” She closed her eyes, trying to close off the agonized wails. “Some men held me down and they sewed up my back. I tried so hard not to scream, because there were so many others that were hurt so much worse than me. The broken ribs and shoulder blade…. there wasn’t much they could do about that. Later, they told me Brian was out in the yard. His leg had been slashed and his arm was cut badly, but he was alive, still.”
Clamping her eyes tighter, she desperately tried to stuff the memories back in the corner where she had closeted them for so long, locking them away, again, lest they spring free and overwhelm. When she finally reopened them, Cameron was in her direct line of sight, skulking under her glare.
“I knew exactly who I was trying to save,” she said, her voice shaking with conviction, now. “It wasn’t Colin McKenzie, believe me! I certainly knew the difference between him and my own husband. And I was no 'witch o' the moors',” she said, acidly, almost laughing at the absurdity. “I was just trying to save my husband. Given the opportunity, anyone would have done as much.”
Then she blinked, and was suddenly delivered back on the deck with a warm tropical breeze drying her damp cheeks. Bewildered, slowly, she realized what she had done. Years of trying to hide, and now, she had laid it all out, told them everything, drew them a map, with a large arrow pointing directly at her. Somehow, she didn't care. Compared to the long years of isolation and loss, imprisonment sounded like a blessing. At least it would be over; she wouldn't have to hide, anymore.
“So there it is, men,” she concluded, lifting a hand. “The grand adventure! And to save you the trouble of wondering, I’ll tell you now: Yes, there is a reward for me. His Majesty's Royal Army would be very pleased to have Katherine Mackenzie, the wife of Red Brian. There are several pounds waiting for the one who turns me in.” Tears started to roll down her cheeks again; relief or frustration, she wasn’t sure which. “It’s your decision.”
She turned and ran toward the cabin. As she brushed past, Jack raised a hand to offer her aid, but then thought better and lowered it, allowing her to go unimpeded.
The crewmen were mute, most of them keeping their eyes on the deck. Jack strolled over, stopping before them, watching and waiting for their response. This wasn’t his decision to make. The crew would have to make this one themselves. If he made it, there could be a chance of betrayal. If it were their choice, there would be total agreement, unity.
Finally, it was Gibbs, who spoke.
“Be there one of you motherless whoresons who care to have the King’s coin in his pockets?” He waited, a gimlet eye boring on each individual. “Anyone!” he bellowed. He nodded with satisfaction, at the silent consent. “Very well, then; so be it! And if any of you blessed wretches decide those pounds are calling’ ye a bit too loud, see me and I’ll double it.” He gave that offer a moment to sink in. “Now, who’s with me?”
A group “Aye” went up. Gibbs turned to Jack, with a reassuring smile on his face.
“She’s safe with us, Cap’n.”
Relinquishing the helm to Cotton, later that night, Jack made his way toward his cabin, but thoughts of his bunk were well distanced from his mind. It was past midnight—the watch bell being indicative of that—and it was time to be considering a place to sleep.
It had been a while since he had the pleasure of his own bunk. Since Kate’s arrival, he’d been nomadic as to where he slept. Not that it was a particular hardship; if twenty-five years at sea teaches you anything, it’s how to sleep anywhere, any time. He had also learned a more recent lesson, however: The body required a few more amenities that it used to. Years ago, a small stretch of open deck was all he needed; could sleep like a babe in its mother’s lap. No longer!
A sling, below decks among the others, was acceptable for a few nights, but ribs, thrice broken long ago, complained too much after that. With a few heavy coils of rope and a bag of nearly anything soft, lying atop one of the longboats’ canvas cover was fairly comfortable, rain in the night notwithstanding. Even the sill of the aft windows in his cabin was tolerable; a few books for a pillow, and maybe his coat underneath for a bit of padding, made for a reasonable night’s sleep. Probably the most accommodating he’d found, so far, was his large, heavily carved chair. With his feet propped on the table and his head nestled in the crook of the chair back, it made for a very good night’s rest.
Granted, there were cabins below, cramped spaces with bunks that were even shorter and narrower than his own, but still could have offered a reasonable place to rest. Those, however, were down there, and Kate was up here; the separation was too far. Sleeping out on deck, he even found to be an uncomfortable distance. No amount of threats or orders could change the fact this was a ship full of men and there was a woman, more than winsome, sleeping just beyond those curtains.
He preferred to make a fair show of where he slept, his goal being to make it obvious to even the most dolt-headed nincompoop that he was not bedding her. The very first she came aboard, it was clear on nearly every face what they thought—what they assumed—would be happening. If she were to remain aboard, Kate would need the respect of the crew, not their suspicions. She needed to be something more than just the captain’s bed-warmer.
At least, that’s what he told himself.
Stifling a yawn, he ambled toward his cabin, the chair sounding the most appealing. The Pearl was listed well to larboard and due to stay that way, at least through the night. Strategically placed, the chair would be much more horizontal than usual and, consequently, a good place to sleep.
The salon was dark. He assumed Kate had long since retired. From the corner of his eye, he saw the low glimmer of a lamp shimmering from behind the curtain in the sleeping quarters and thought it odd; customarily, the light would have been doused by now. At first, he considered lighting a candle before moving the chair, but chose against it in favor of the moonlight. It poured through the gallery, bathing everything in a glow, offering more than enough light to navigate about the room.
It wasn’t until the chair was pulled around to what he judged a proper location for the night that he saw her. She sat curled on the sill of the far window, arms wrapped around her bent legs. In the suede indigo of the shadows, it was difficult to be sure, but it appeared as though she faced the water, her head resting on her knees. Since she didn’t move or acknowledge his presence, he figured her to be asleep and moved quietly. Cautiously circling, his hip pressed against the sill before he could make out her face clearly enough to see she was awake.
She blinked from her stare, mildly surprised to see him. Drowsily, as if she were actually waking, she looked his way.
“I didn’t hear you come in,” she said, propping her chin on her arms. Her voice was scratchy and thickened, much like someone who hadn’t spoken in a while…or someone who had been crying.
“I was trying to be quiet; I thought you to be abed by now.” Lifting his hip, he half-sat on the ledge.
“No,” she said simply, and redirected her gaze toward the water. “It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” She spoke quietly, after several moments, a wistfulness in her voice.
He cast an eye out the window, and tried to see it as she would. It was difficult to recall what it had been like to see the Caribbean for the first time. Clouds swathed the hips of the moon. Only three-quarters, it still shone brightly, illuminating all in a bluish, silver-white light that reflected off the backs of the clouds and the rippling peaks of the water. Some distance off were islands, purplish-black silhouettes against the horizon. Tilting his head, he looked at her, bathed in the same frosted light.
“Aye, ‘tis beautiful.”
A silence fell between them, again. He tried to be patient, but it was too awkward, the earlier events of the evening still troubling him. Shifting his weight, he flinched at the seemingly shattering noise of the rattle of his hair trinkets and leathery creak of his belts. His eye darted her way, relieved to see she remained undisturbed. Hazarding another movement, he situated himself more comfortably, and tried to wait a little longer, drumming his fingers softly on his belt.
Finally, the silence became too much to bear. Clearing his throat, he saw she still didn’t move.
“You jumped on a horse?”
It took a moment, but her head did eventually come around, her cheek resting on her arm. Initially, she wore a slight frown, unsure what he referred to, a vague smile growing with the realization.
“I grew up on a farm with five brothers,” she explained, lifting one shoulder slightly.
“Five brothers! You’re father must have been proud.”
“Would have been prouder with six,” she equivocated. “But, he settled for five.”
A variety of questions tumbled through his head, all of which he chose to ignore, focusing on the issue at hand, instead.
“So, it’s to be Witch o’ the Moors, is it?” He tried to add a lilt to his voice, adding a brief smile, to help put her at ease. Regretfully, even in the dim light, he saw her twitch, his words hitting a nerve he had wished to avoid.
“Scary, isn’t it?” She heaved a sigh laced with frustration, and ran a hand through her hair. “How can they make stories that are so outlandish, from something that was so horrible? It’s like they think it was some kind of a game we were playing.”
“Happens all the time, darling; a fascination with the macabre and the grisly.”
She pressed her lips grimly together. “I suppose you’ve seen enough of that to know.” Exhaling, she made a low growling sound as she rubbed her forehead roughly on her arm. The light reflected in a ribbon-like sheen off her hair. “I never wanted to be famous.”
He pursed his mouth. “Fame’s not so bad; you can use it. It can get you free rum and your choice of the best whores.”
“Can’t say as I ever pined for either one of those.”
“People recognize you, know your name,” he added lightly.
“I’ve rather been striving to avoid that,” she said with an edge of scorn.
He paused, twisting a ring as he further considered. “You can control it…mostly. Sometimes, it controls you; takes on a life of its own, begins to grow with or without you.”
“All I wanted was Brian, alive,” she said, tracing a fold of her skirt with a finger, “the rest was just what had to be done to get that.”
He had to admit, it was a familiar strain, one he had heard many a time.
“People who do what they must, to get what they want, are to be admired.” He spoke it before he could stop himself. Must have been a good night for memories! The words rang back, and he recalled standing at the rail of a ship of the line one night, some time ago, when he had said nearly the same thing, to a golden-haired vexation.
“Including killing?” She shot him a doubtful look. “Do you find that an admirable trait?”
“Admiration comes in many forms, luv, under many masks.”
Her eyes lingered on his for a moment, glittering in the silvery light. Fearing what those cursed green eyes might be seeing, he dropped his gaze, suddenly interested in the hilt of his sword. Cautiously, he snuck a look from the corner of one eye, looking up again when he found she was no longer staring at him.
“I was sitting here thinking about the night before Brian was supposed to be captured.” Her voice was soft, barely audible.
“’Supposed to be captured’?” he echoed, thinking possibly he had misunderstood.
She nodded, one corner of her mouth curling. “Arrangements had been made for one of the tenants to turn him in the next day. It was a way for his family to receive the reward, rather than some stranger that may have reported him. That money kept his family and all their tenants fed for several years after.”
Saints save us from noble men with noble ideas, he thought. Is there no end to the price paid by men with honor and good intentions?
“What about you?” he asked.
“I left that morning, before he was to be taken. It gave me enough of a head start to get away.”
“You didn’t get any of the money?” The entire concept seemed unthinkable.
“No, I was far gone by the time the money was distributed. They sent me a little, when they could, but it was too dangerous for any of us to have contact.”
Her profile was blue-white rimmed as she turned back to the window. “We slept outside that night. It was cold, but we took extra quilts and found a quiet spot away from everyone. He wanted to enjoy his last opportunity to see stars and breathe fresh air. It was like this, that night,” she finished, tipping her head up.
She fell quiet again, obviously lost in her own thoughts.
He recalled a few of those kinds of nights of his own, either sitting on the deck of a ship, with an impending battle the next day, or sitting in some stinking jail cell, his execution due at sunrise. The desire to see the sky or breathe clean air was understandable. Truth be told, death, either by battle or the hangman’s noose, was easily preferable over imprisonment. Such confinement, a prolonged loss of freedom, would be new definition of Hell, if he were in need of one. He felt a sudden connection with her husband that he hadn’t expected, a surprising commonality.
“So,” she announced softly, resting her chin on her arms again. “How’s it to be? Will we be going to the nearest garrison, or will we be going all the way to Port Royal?”
He frowned. “For what?”
“Turn me in! That’s why I’ve been sitting here; I suspect it might be my last night of freedom.” Sighing, she leaned back against the window frame, the breeze blowing her hair across her neck. “Actually, in a way, I’m ready for it to all be over with. It will be a bit of a relief to not be constantly worried about when someone was going to recognize me. I had thought the West Indies to be safe, but it would seem the King’s arm is a long one.”
“I hate to deflate your high hopes, but you won’t be turned in anytime soon…not if this lot of blackguards has anything to do with it.”
“How can that be?” she asked, scowling in disbelief.
“They voted,” he offered, simply, jerking a thumb. “Believe me, I had nothing to do with it! They made up their own minds.”
“But there’s a reward.”
“There’s barely a man on this ship that doesn’t have some kind of a price on his head,” he explained, rising slowly. “If we were to turn in one, we would have to turn in everyone. Be bloody inconvenient, it would! I’d have to find nearly a whole new crew.” He took a few steps, and then paused at her elbow. “You’ll be well tonight, then?”
She nodded, bracing her head in one hand. “I think so, now that I don’t have to worry. I still think I’ll stay here for a while; I’m enjoying the night too much.”
Now that he stood nearer, he could see the tremors periodically coursing through her. “You’re shivering.”
“Am I?” She passed a hand over her arm, surprising herself. “I hadn’t noticed.”
In nearly a single fluid motion, he tossed off his baldric from his shoulder, slid off his coat, and whirled it over her, tentatively tucking it about her arms and feet.
“Mmm, thank you,” she murmured, snuggling deeper. “I hadn’t realized I was cold. Seems impossible for someone to get cold in the Caribbean, doesn’t it?”
“I learned long ago, nothing is impossible. Improbable, maybe; but never impossible.”
Slipping his sword back over his shoulder, he poked about the table. Turning the hourglass, he considered making his log entries, but instantly decided against it. The moon was bright, but not bright enough for that. He made as if to leave, noticing again, the light still burning in the sleeping quarters.
“Would you like me to…”
His voice trailed off as he looked back. Head bent back against the window frame, she was asleep.