Kate learns many things about many of the men as she finds a new use aboard the Pearl,
The next day the wind stiffened and the seas grew, but the Pearl didn’t mind. Luffing here, pointing badly there, or wallowing hard against the waves at her bow, she showed her captain how she wanted her sails trimmed then steadied well and sailed her best in gratitude. Heeling well to port, the waves occasionally slammed high against her larboard bow, soaking the deck and anyone who happened to be about, with rain-shower thoroughness.
Too wet to sit at her usual place at the bow, Kate perched at the far end of the afterdeck, against the stern pulpit, diligently working. A few days before, her scissors had needed sharpening and it was soon discovered she had a skill, and a flair, for the honing of edges. When asked how that came to be, her only answer was: “I had five brothers and grew up on a farm.” It seemed a fair explanation.
Knives, swords, broad axes, hatchets, and harpoons—the Black Pearl bristled with a wide host of sharp-edged objects, of both the day-to-day tool and weaponry varieties. Consequently, she spent a small amount of almost every day, sharpening. Hone stone, oil, leather and rags became her constant companions, all carried in a small basket. This day being no exception, she busied herself with several rigging knives the men had brought her, anxious for a few minutes of conversation as she worked.
Finishing his watch, and satisfied the Pearl was content, Jack strolled his way up the deck, toward the bow. The odd wave caught him a few times, but he knew his ship well enough to sense them coming, most times, and ducked his head, at least avoiding taking the water square in the face. A man who couldn't bear being wet had no business at sea. His goal was the larboard foredeck crew, who were working on replacing two sheet lines that had become far too frayed to be trusted. Lines were strewn everywhere, but no one tripped, all too seasoned to fall to such a hazard.
“You, sailor!” Jack called, tapping one on the shoulder. “Your name's Cameron, am I right?”
“Aye, Cap'n,” the crewman replied, bobbing a salute, disconcerted to find his commander suddenly so unexpectedly close.
“I was wondering if I might have a word with you and your friend,” Jack began, pulling the man aside, the other following. He sought more to distance them from the other crewmen rather than to avoid the oncoming water. “You spoke of the Rising last night?
“Aye, sir.” The response came with a thick Scots brogue.
“Then you knew of Mr. Kate's husband?” Jack inquired cautiously, lowering his voice.
“Captain Mackenzie?” A broad, relieved smile broke across the Cameron's face, his head bobbing enthusiastically. “Aye, sir! Me 'n' Hughes, we served under 'im.”
“Can you tell me anything about him? What sort of man he was?” It had festered on him all night, wondering, his curiosity overwhelming. He had to know what manner of man would drag a woman, his wife, into war and then leave her after, unprotected.
“The best, sir,” Huges replied adamantly. “A man among men, he was.”
“Aye, sir, we'd follow him anywhere; to Hell and back.”
“And Culloden was Hell, sir.”
“Brave?” Jack inquired, sharply watching both men. “Honest?”
All three ducked as a shower of water sprayed over their heads.
“To a fault, sir,” Cameron answered eagerly, water dripping from his chin. “Never led a charge mounted; insisted on afoot, as the rest us. And never left a wounded man on the field; retrieved every one himself, if necessary.”
“Aye, I saw him carry many a man off the field.”
“Fought like the Dev'l possessed him himself,” Cameron added. “Saw 'im near cleave a man in half, once't.”
“Aye, could swing a Claymore like a child swings its rattle,” Hughes went on, the both of them nodding enthusiastically.
“Then, he was a big man?” Jack asked, frowning slightly.
“Good head more taller than yerself, sir,” Cameron estimated, squeezing one eye shut. “At least; had to duck his head at near every door he passed.”
“And weighed a good twenty stone,” Hughes put in, his wet shirt plastered to his shoulders. “Had hands nearly twice as wide as most men's.”
Jack's gaze dropped to the deck. This wasn't going as he had expected, at all. How could the bloody bastard suddenly become a bloody hero?
“And handsome, too,” Cameron continued, clearly eager to please, dodging the last remnants of another wave. “Wasn't narry a lass what didn't swoon at his passing.” He paused, sobering, his face clouding. “And he loved the leddy, sir,” he said, lowering his voice. Tilting his head toward the afterdeck, he went on. “Ye could see it well, every time he looked at 'er. Took her everywhere w' 'im; they were inseparable. Heaven help the man what ever gave her an off look!” he finished, shaking his head dolefully.
Waving a hand, Jack dismissed the two, moving to stand at the rail. Unmindful of the water raining down over him, he stared sightlessly across the sea. His worst fears had been proven correct. It would have been much easier to dislike Kate’s husband if he were a lout, but he wasn’t. From the sound of it, he was damned near a bloody hero! She'd had a good man, and missed him dearly. No man could ask for more.
Drifting in the mindless sea of sleep, foggy, formless shapes wafting by, whispering soundless messages; she recognizes the preambles of the too familiar dream as it congeals.
As much as is possible in a dream, she knows it to be the same, the one that revisits again and again, over and over, unannounced, unwanted and unrelated to anything currently happening in her consciousness world. It is haunting on so many levels, the worst being because she knows it is imminent and yet is helpless, unable to stop it.
Like a handcuffed spectator, she watches herself being dragged into the confusing melee of voices and faces that loom out of a fog, seizing her by the arms, pinning down her legs. Hard boards pressing against her back and the painfully sharp stab of a rock poking into her shoulder, she writhes and squirms as her arms are pulled up over her head, knowing what's coming next. She tries to scream, but can't. As always, for some inexplicable reason, she’s unable, her jaws frozen, her throat closed. No, wait! It's a hand, over her mouth and nose, cutting off her cries, blocking her air.
Can't breathe! Can't breathe!
A constricting weight is on her chest, crushing the very breath from her lungs, robbing her of precious air, threatening to squeeze out the last bit of life. Desperately, her eyes roll to the side beseeching herself, the observer, for help.
Do something! Do something!
Trapped in her own cage, she's unable to move, barricaded from reaching out, powerless. Arms and hands are holding her back—the same ones that are holding her down to the boards.
She knows what is to come next. Anticipation and knowledge are delivering the pain before it actually arrives, a harbinger of what's to come.
Have to stop it! Please, not again!
She's lived this dream, too many times, and knows well it is a dream. Sometime, somehow, somewhere, she has to stop it! Make it go away!
Again, she tries to scream, this time finding her voice, muted through clenched teeth. More hands now, clutching and pulling, with new voices, unfamiliar, different from the familiar visions. Clamping onto her arms and shoulders, calling, shaking—she screams again, too terrified of the unfamiliar new.
“Kate! Kate! Wake up, luv. C’mon, wake up.”
Her eyes are open, she thinks, but it is still dark, darker than the dream. She jerks at feeling someone near, beside, almost on top, and flails, the now of awake melding, somehow, with the then of her dream. Voices approach, crowding around, male and strange, and send her into another frenzy.
“Shh! Shh! You're safe; we’re here! Shh!”
Slowly, the fog lifts, curling back into the recesses of her mind. One voice is familiar, his nearness suddenly comforting, the safety she begged for just moments ago. Trembling, she falls against him, clutching tightly, scrabbling at his shoulders and back as he gathers her. Mute, unable to find her voice again, she clings, silently sobbing, fiercely afraid to let go.
Nestling her head into the crook of his neck, he holds her, making little nonsensical sounds, stroking her back in slow, hypnotic circles. Gradually, the sobbing fades; she can breathe again, admittedly inhibited by tears and fears, but at least free to breathe. His arms are comforting, strong yet gentle. Safety, protection; she’s found it, here, in the dark. Nuzzling her head into his hair, she quiets, releasing her consciousness to the security of his arms.
Crouched on the bunk, Jack held Kate cradled against his chest for a while more. Slowly, her body grew heavy and lax as she drifted back to sleep, her breathing still catching and hitched but easing.
“Is she all right?” Gibbs whispered hoarsely, hovering near by.
Jack nodded, as he carefully lowered her back onto her pillow. “Aye, I think so.” His own gravelly voice was lowered to a coarse rasp.
“That's the second time this week,” Gibbs hissed, his worried frown barely visible in the light of the lantern he carried. “You s'pose it's just a dream?”
“No.” Jack sighed, brushing back sweat-dampened hair from her face. Rising slowly, he tugged the quilt well around her shoulders. “Demons, Mr. Gibbs; she's fighting demons.”
“Maybe we should leave a light of some kind for her.”
His gaze still locked on her, Jack nodded. “Aye, we'll try it. Get one of the oil lamps; they last the longest. Hang it from that peg; shouldn't shine in her eyes too badly from there.”
“We don't have much oil.”
“We'll get some,” Jack answered tersely.
“Poor, lass,” Gibbs murmured, shaking his head sympathetically, his wide lips pressed tightly in thought. “What do you s'pose...?”
The end of his question hung in the air, unanswered, unanswerable.
Jack blew a long, heavy exhale, watching as she slept, her face now passive. “I don't know.”
“I s'pose we all have our demons,” Gibbs offered philosophically, in a feeble attempt to rationalize.
“True enough,” Jack agreed, grimly. “But a woman shouldn't have to deal with ones so large.”
Long hours of sailing made for long hours of boredom, the result being anything could become entertainment.
Hearing a loud raucous clamor on deck the next day, Kate came out to find two crewmen in a sword fight. Stripped of their shirts, their chest shining with sweat, they maneuvered back and forth, but always within a chalk circle marked on the deck.
“Why are you letting these two fight?” she asked, stopping next to Jack. “Isn't someone going to get hurt?”
“They're playing,” Jack announced lightly from his perch atop a barrel, his eyes following the fight.
“Playing?” she repeated, incredulous. “I've seen practices before, but those two look like they're trying to hack each other to pieces.”
“Pirates, luv,” Jack replied, tilting a look at her from the corner of one eye. “We don't stand much on form, just get the job done.”
“Which means kill a’fore gettin’ killed,” Gibbs added, from Jack's far side. He was leaning against the rail, arms crossed loosely.
Distracted, she didn't see what happened, but a cheer went up, announcing one of the two the victor. Barely out of the circle, two more stepped in, brandished their weapons, and the fighting commenced again.
“Y' know Cap'n,” Gibbs began slowly, his eyes tracking the men, but angling his head toward Kate. “If she's to be out here, she should be able to protect herself.”
“He's right, luv,” Jack agreed easily, pulling his own eyes away. “Things can happen quickly out here and you could be left to your own. Can you fight?”
“You mean, like fists?” she answered warily.
“No,” Jack answered, his attention distracted back to the swordplay. “You're feisty, but would be no match.” He paused to shout encouragement to one of the combatants. “What about swords? Saw you on the Melody; you weren't bad.”
“You're too kind,” she quipped, flapping a dismissive hand. “Is there anything else I can do?”
“No, I mean it,” he replied, mildly irritated. He thumped Gibbs on the shoulder, to get his attention then jerked a thumb toward her. “She wasn't half bad.”
“For a woman,” she interjected, peering around Jack to see Gibbs.
“Well, certainly,” Jack equivocated, as did Gibbs. Hoisting himself down from the barrel, he grabbed her by the arm. “C'mon, let's see what you have.”
A lengthy group conversation ensued concerning all the finer points of the selection of a weapon for her, size, weight and girth of handle being of significant importance. A deeper, more serious debate followed, as to the selection of her opponent. Jensen, the youngest crewmen, was first chosen because of his similarity in size with Kate and his need for practice. This was immediately dismissed by Gibbs, pointing out the kid didn't have the experience to avoid accidentally injuring her. Through the process of elimination, Jack was finally urged forward, the silent agreement being if anyone was to injure Kate, let it be the captain. No one else wanted to face that risk or consequences.
Wiping the palm of her hand on her skirt, she gripped the sword, feeling the bite of the metal against her flesh.
“Loosen your grip a bit, luv,” Jack offered, circling around her, his arm hanging loose at his side. “Don't allow your opponent see you're worried. Stare him in the eye; make him wonder what you're going to do.”
Without warning, she lunged, bringing a cheer as she caught him off guard. Her surprise tactic had effect only for a split second then he easily defended back, resuming a neutral stand. Attacking and defending, lunging and parrying, they circled back and forth.
“Keep your elbow down, girl!” Gibbs shouted. “That's it! No, no, keep it down!”
Calling a halt with one hand, Jack seized her elbow. “Keep it down here,” he said firmly. “Let it come up too high, and you're leaving yourself open.” He poked her sharply in the ribs with his finger. “Next time, that could be a sword.”
Resuming his position, they squared off, his eyes brightly intent on hers. A slightly crooked smile traced his lips, as he waited. Without out so much as a flicker of his eyes, he attacked, pressing her back. She defended well, but couldn't gain any ground, her sword finally clattering to the deck as he wrenched it from her hand with a quick flick of his blade. The surrounding men cheered anyway, shouting words of encouragement, some clearly pleased she could bear a sword at all.
“Not bad, luv,” Jack exclaimed. “With a little practice, you could be fair. The problem is strength, you just don't have it against a man.”
His words inflated, then bruised. Knowing full well she didn't have the same strength as a man, she still didn't like to have her weaknesses pointed out.
“Don't look so hurt!” Jack laughed, slapping her jovially on the back. “Bloody awkward for a woman to have the same strength as a man; doesn't sound appealing a'tall. What of it, Gibbs!”
“Well, she could buy herself a bit o’ time,” Gibbs speculated. “But seems she'd just get herself hurt carrying a sword. We'll get 'er practiced up, but she'll be a-needin’ somethin’ more.”
“Can you fight?” Jack asked, cocking any eyebrow.
“I had five brothers.”
“Say no more!”
“How’s about a knife?” Gibbs suggested, reaching around behind himself, and pulling out his own.
“Think you could handle that?” Jack asked, retrieving it from Gibbs, and pushing it toward Kate.
Taking it, she balanced it in her hand for a moment, feeling the weight of the ivory handle across her palm.
“I used to have one,” she said quietly, gazing at the shine of the edge of the blade. “It was a long time ago, but I did have one.”
Jack sobered for a moment, scowling slightly at the tone of her voice. “Your husband?” he asked softly.
Nodding, she looked up, swallowing hard. “He thought I needed to be able to protect myself, as well. He and his men taught me how to use one, how to kill.” She dropped her gaze to the knife, her thumb tracing the handle. “It was considerably smaller than this, a stocking knife that I kept in my pocket.”
Sighing, Jack hesitated, appearing not quite sure what to do. She could feel the men staring at her, suddenly stricken mum. Smiling nervously, she griped the handle tighter, rolling it in her fingers, trying to appear confident.
“So, what would you like me to be able to do with this?”
“You'll need to be able to protect yourself,” Jack warned. “You'll need to be ready to kill, if you must. Could you do that?”
Her throat tightened and she felt a clenching in her stomach, her fingers closing around the ivory. She didn't want to sound cavalier, or bragging, but facts were facts.
“I've done it before,” she said quietly, returning Jack's gaze. “I could do it again… if I had to.”
“Fair enough,” he replied, giving her a tight-lipped smile. “And it will be me...” He stopped to throw a glance around the men standing around them. “It will be the task of all of us to make sure that moment never comes, eh?”
With little discussion, or hesitation, Mr. Gibbs was voted best knife-bearer aboard, and was, therefore, elected to be Kate’s new master.
Easily pulling his dagger from his boot top, Jack handed it hilt first to her, with a smile and a grand, sweeping gesture. “Go ahead, luv! Show us what you have!”
Hesitant, she rolled the heavily scrimshawed knife in her hand, feeling the weight of it. Well-balanced and compact, it was still considerably larger than the one she had owned, in a previous life. It had been a singh dhu, a Highlander’s stocking knife, barely the length of her hand. As the sun glinted off the well-honed edge, she recalled seeing the same thing, in a sun-drenched glen, with men circled around same as now, cheering.
Temporarily switching hands, she wiped her palm again, then returned the knife to her right hand and re-gripped several times until the comfort spot was found.
“Looks like she knows what she’s doing already,” observed Marty, as she and Gibbs faced each other, slowly starting to circle.
“That’s right, Mr. Kate,” called Pintel. “’Under ‘and is always bett’r than over’and.”
“If you’re as short as you are,” jibed Ragetti. “Overhand is a much better kill, if you’re tall.”
Their arguments faded from her hearing as she focused on Mr. Gibbs, slightly crouched. His eyes locked hers in a steady stare, measuring and waiting. The corner of one eye twitched ever so slightly, her only warning before he launched at her, diving for her arm, seeking to grab and twist. Mentally, she laughed. It was the same move one of her older brothers always used during much of her childhood. She easily slid out of the hold, coming around with her knee, and catching him in the backside. A cheer went up from the crowd as the force shot him forward several stumbling steps before he was able to recover and whirl back around.
At first, he had been leery, unsure and skeptical of her ability. Now, there was no hesitation as Gibbs came back to circle again. In one smooth flowing move, he grabbed her by the arm and rolled her toward him, his blade poised at her neck before she was able to take a second breath.
“That’s a kill!” declared several of the men and cheered for more.
They skirmished back and forth across the deck, taking up various scenarios of possible assaults: from behind, from in front, jumping out from some imaginary cover. Based on sheer strength, Gibbs was able to prevail most of the time, but Kate was able to attain a winning position enough to prove her a capable and earn approving nods. Jack and the crew shouted suggestions and encouragements, intermixed with a sizeable quantity of jeers when either of them were thrown to the deck. A few times, either Jack or Gibbs called a halt, in order to offer their insight on stance and angle. Other times, she and the first mate broke into peals of laughter and had to call a truce.
Trying to exhibit a strategy of being attacked from behind, Jack wrapped his arm around her waist, drawing her tight against him, and rolled a wide-eyed, leering smile, playfully imitating an amorous onslaught, over-reacting when she stepped on his foot.
Both Kate and Gibbs were perspiring heavily, when Gibbs negotiated a maneuver that allowed him to grab Kate from behind, his arm wrapping around her neck. Momentum drove them both to the deck and they tumbled. With strength and weight his advantage, Gibbs rolled them both over, coming up on top of her. Pressing her to the deck with his body, he cuffed both of her wrists with one hand and forced her arms up over her head. Gasping with the effort, she tried to wrench out from under him, but his hips held hers tight to the boards underneath, his knees anchoring legs.
At first, she thought it was his weight on her chest that was robbing her of air, causing the sounds around her fade away. Suddenly, she was in a world of silence except for the sound of his heavy breathing, on top of her, grunting. Feeling drops of his sweat falling in her face, she looked up to see eyes, no longer recognizable—predatory, lusting.
She gave a gut-wrenching scream and tried to wrench away. Blinded by fear and fury, she fought back, obsessed with escaping. The weight went away, only to be replaced by more hands, grabbing at her from every direction. Furiously batting them away, she pleaded to be left alone, begging to be released.
And so, they did. Miraculously, she was released, unhindered. Rolling over and sitting up, she looked up into over a dozen faces, staring at her, slack-jawed and goggle-eyed. Jack knelt next to her, a deep frown creasing his brow, curious and accusing. Gibbs stood over him, confused guilt etched deep on his face.
Muttering something indiscernible to her, Jack reached out, but she jerked away and stumbled to her feet. Warding off more hands and stunned stares, she ran blindly down the deck, stopping at the bow only because there was nowhere else to run. Collapsing against the rail, she buried her head in her arms, cowering, scared, bewildered, and embarrassed. Why? Why did she do that? Where did that come from?
A hand touched her arm and she jumped, yelping as she whirled, swinging an arm in mindless defense. Jack retreated quickly, exhibiting both hands in surrender.
“I’m sorry,” she gasped. Clutching her hand to her chest, she tried to collect herself, create a cohesive thought that could be verbally expressed. Failing miserably, she shrunk back into the corner.
“Are you all right?” Jack’s frown hadn’t softened. In fact, if anything, it had deepened more as he leaned closer, peering cautiously.
Mutely, she nodded, jumping again as his fingers touched her arm. Recoiling as if he had just been seared, he stood with his hands spread, helpless.
“I’m sorry.” The words came out in a quavering wisp. Taking a deep breath, she tried to speak more naturally. “I didn’t mean to…”
“You’re shaking,” Jack observed from his safe margin.
“I’m all right,” she insisted, nodding in acknowledgement. “I’m fine.” Wanting to assure him, she held up a hand, only to quickly drop it when she saw it uncontrollably shaking. “I’m fine,” she repeated, burying her hand in her skirt.
“Let me take you into the cabin.” His eyes shifted, looking about for some kind of inspiration to offer solace. “You’re scaring the crew,” was the best he was able to offer.
Aware for the first time of the others around, the drenching cold of mortification clutched her. Prying herself from her corner, with Jack’s hand at her elbow, cautiously guiding, she made her way toward the cabin, the promise of a deeper refuge her enticement. She wanted to offer some kind of apology, but found it impossible to bear up under the faces as she passed. Instead, she ducked her head, allowing a heavy fall of hair be her protective curtain.
Quietly depositing her in the heavily carved chair, Jack sought out a bottle of rum and poured a small dose.
“This should help,” he murmured and set it on the table.
She felt him watching as he stood back, his eyes following her tremulous hand as she reached for the glass and took a drink. Shuddering, she set the glass down, valiantly trying to hide the involuntary grimace as she swallowed.
“Thank you.” The words rasped over her throat, tightened by the distaste of the rum.
“Can you give us a hint what that was all about?” he asked, gently, his eyes still clouded with concern. “Did you really think Gibbs was trying to attack you?”
“No…I mean, yes, I know…but, no…” Frustrated by the inability to yet manage a cohesive thought, she propped her head in one hand, furiously rubbing her brow. “I know!” she growled, between clenched teeth. “I know he didn’t mean anything!”
“Nothing!!” The flat of her hand slammed down on the table, startling both of them. Drawing a long breath, she shakily blew it out, desperately seeking to attain any variety of calm. “It’s nothing; I’ll be fine. Just leave me alone!”
Narrowing one eye, he nodded, tight-lipped. “Very well, then,” he nearly whispered.
He made a large symbolic show of turning his back to her for a moment then demonstratively coming back around bearing a large, artificial smile, making very clear his intentions of changing the subject. “You’re rather good with a knife…for a woman, that is.”
“For a woman, I’ve had lots of practice,” she retorted, barely tolerant.
A glimmer of devilish delight lit a corner of one eye. “You’ve a rather adept skill at wrestling, as well.”
“For a woman?” Her words held an ungracious bite, as she looked up, glaring.
“For a woman,” he agreed, amiably.
Suddenly, she became aware of what he was attempting and an involuntary smile broke out.
“Like I said, I had five brothers.”
Seeming to sense it was now safe, he strolled closer, leaning against a chair, arms crossed. “What you lack in strength, you gain in wile.”
“I suppose that could be the story of my life.”
He nodded, introspectively. “Aye, there’s a ring o’ truth in that.”
She heaved another long, shuddering sigh, seeking to cleanse herself of any final remnants of her earlier terrors. “I’m sorry for the way I acted; I didn’t mean to make a scene.”
“Some of the crew think you’re devil possessed,” he began, casually waving a loose wrist, “but other than that…well, except for Gibbs, who fears you want to cut his throat.”
“I suppose he would,” she speculated, grimly. “I’ll try to find him and apologize.”
“Don’t be surprised if he runs the other way when he sees you coming.”
Groaning, she buried her face in her hands. “I don’t know what comes over me sometimes!”
He shifted his weight, straightening enough to drum his fingers lightly on the table. “Darling, we all have our baggage we carry about. It’s not necessarily the weight of it, but where we choose to stow it.”
She looked up to find a knowing gaze upon her, his kohl-rimmed eyes even darker. Slightly drawn at the corners, they seemed to be offering her a glimpse of his burdens, not to equivocate hers, but to assure she wasn’t struggling alone.
“Thank you, Jack, I’ll remember that,” she murmured, swallowing hard. “Sometimes, you are a very wise man.”
A broad, square-toothed smile, heavily laced with gold, broke across his face, a twinkle touching one eye. “Scary, isn’t it?” Chuckling softly to himself, he turned and swaggered out of the cabin, waving a vague hand behind. “I’ll be just outside, if you find you’ve need of me.”
Once alone, she buried her head in her hands, gasping a long sob.
Damn, why did you have to do that? Gibbs didn’t mean anything! They were just having a good time; why did you have to go and spoil it? There was no earthly reason to act like that! Why the hell can’t you just act normal? She hissed at herself, beating her brow. It’s not fair! It’s just not fair!!
Feeling herself on the brink of a major breakdown, she reached for the rum bottle and took a long, agonizing swig, nearly gagging toward the end.
God, that stuff is awful!! What I wouldn’t do for a nice shot of whiskey, just about now.
Dusk was just falling, the brilliance of the day surrendering to the unruffled tranquility of evening. The call-to-mess bell had rung and most of the crew had retired below decks. Knowing that gave her the courage to venture out, seeking Mr. Gibbs. She knew he was on the quarterdeck by the sound of his deep rumbling voice through the skylight overhead, alone, having just dismissed everyone to their meal.
Cautiously, she crept out, sidling up the gangway. He caught sight of her part way up the stairs and his eyes darted away. Shoulders hunched, he took what little cover he could, confined as he was to the wheel of the ship. He was visibly sweating by the time she stopped next to him.
“Mr. Gibbs,” she began. The corner of his eye twitched at the sound of her voice and she saw his hands fist tighten around the spokes of the wheel. “Please, Gibbs, I want to apologize.”
Uncertain, he looked her way then jerked his head. “I’m sorry, sir, if I—“
“No, no! It’s nothing you did. It was my fault.”
“I never intended to make you think I wuz tryin’ any kind of foolishness”
“I know that,” she replied vehemently then paused, her voice softening. “I know that and I never thought that, never.”
He gave her a dubious glance, his grizzled brows meeting over the bridge of his nose. “’Tis not the exact impression t’was given.”
“I know you never would do anything like that,” she repeated, quickly. “You’re far too much the gentleman.”
Eyes widening in shocked dismay, he twisted, clearly struggling for words. “I would ‘preciate it, sir, if ye please, if ye wouldn’t spread that bit ‘round.”
“Of course, not!” Leaning a little closer, she touched his arm, seeking to draw his eyes. “Deep inside, Gibbs, I think you’ve that same good heart—and as large an honest streak as your captain.”
He drew back, horrified. “It shows?” he exclaimed in a whispered hiss.
She nodded slightly, struggling to hide the humor she found in his reaction. “Heavily coated in larceny for camouflage, but yes, it’s definitely there.”
“And what, pray tell, will ye be chargin’ to keep that bit o’ fluff quiet?” His eyes narrowed into suspicious slits, his ample mouth screwed sideways in distrust.
Chuckling softly, deep in her throat, she bent and gave him a light kiss on the cheek, eliciting a shocked jerk. “I think I’ll just leave you to wonder for a bit.”
Another indispensable service of which Kate discovered she was capable came quite by accident, thrust upon her. Again, it was Mr. Cameron who approached her, hat in hand. Shifting nervously on his feet, sidling closer, he cleared his throat several times before he began.
“'Cuse me, mum,” he started, twisting at his hat. He paused to clear his throat several times more. “Might I have a word w' ye?”
“Certainly, Mr. Cameron,” she answered, mildly curious and a bit wary.
“Well, mum.” He paused again, groping for words, his eyes downcast. “I was recallin', from before, when we wuz marchin' to Stirling.”
“Yes?” Just those few words brought back a tumble of memories she had hoped to never face: freezing weather, hundreds of Highlanders, hungry, leading up to a battle on a distant hill.
“Ye can write, mum.”
She blinked, startled by his conjecture. “Well, yes, I both read and write.”
“I knew it!” he beamed, then sobered, returning to his mission. “Well, mum, I recalled seein' ye, at the fires, of a night, writin' a letter...for yer husband's men.”
“Yes, I remember,” she said faintly. Dozens of men, facing a battle they feared might be their last, wishing to send final words to loved ones; unable to write, they had come to her. All night, by the campfire, with quill and ink, she furiously scratched words of love, last wills, or tearful good-byes.
“Could ye consider doin' the same...now...for someone...perhaps?” He slowly looked up, his face filled with hope and dread.
“You, Mr. Cameron?”
“Aye,” he replied, nodding, suddenly deeply interested in the brim of his hat he was unmercifully mangling. “’Tis been...well, you know how long, as well as myself, since...everything and I've not sent word home since the day we marched.”
“Never? Your family hasn't heard from you at all?”
“Wife, mum,” he corrected politely. “I had a wife, and bairns as well.”
“And you've never sent them word.”
“No, mum, I know it was terrible bad of me, but, some how, I just never...” His words trailed off as he shrugged one shoulder.
“I understand, Mr. Cameron,” Kate sighed, looking away, hoping to relieve him of some of the pressure under which the poor man was clearly suffering. “Life does have a way of sweeping you off in directions you don't always anticipate. I'd be glad to write a note for you.”
What Cameron hadn’t seen, what he wouldn't remember, were the wounded and the dying, those that she wrote for after the battles, tearfully murmuring their good-byes, joys and regrets. Day and night, crouched in the dirt, she wrote the words dictated through parched lips. Sometimes, the lips would forever cease to move, and she would complete their last thoughts, a surrogate, closing as tenderly as possible. Sometimes, she added a small addendum, informing loved ones of their last moments
It had been exhausting work, and she wouldn't have surrendered a single moment. Serving as a final bridge, a small way to help the helpless, an offering of solace to the man before her as well as the distant loved one, she reminded herself of the treasured effect a last letter would have brought if the tables has been turned, if she were the one left in some distant home, and it was Brian dying in an unknown farmhouse at the edge of a battlefield.
It was that frame of reference that propelled her through hours of writing for the crew. One by one, they came to her, sometimes in the light of day, sometimes in the confessional dark of below decks. They dictated, some facing her square on, wide-eyed and earnest, while others sat with their backs turned, embarrassed by the sentiments they asked she put to paper. The words were often the same, reasons and excuses for long absences or oversights, exhortations of remorse, longings and well wishing. Hunched over a crate or barrel top, lantern at her elbow, she wrote, small tight lines for some, brief singular words for others, to daughters, mothers and wives, sweethearts and sisters, grandmothers and aunts, heavily sprinkled with fathers and sons.
The tragic ones were the men whose families spoke no other language other than their own mother tongue and Kate had no concept of how to speak or write the necessary words. The Spanish-speaking crewmen she could help, since she was fluent. But for the others, translating into English would have served no purpose, since no one in the hometown would be able to read it. Those were the men who were left incommunicado, cut off from their loved ones.
Equally isolated was Cotton. Mute and illiterate, he had no way of communicating. Awkwardly, Kate tried pantomime or sessions of question and answer, but to no avail. He remained the unlocked book.
Finding her sitting at the table one evening, rubbing the cramps out of her hand, Jack pulled up a chair and sat next to her.
“Why didn't they come to me or Gibbs?” Casually, he took her hand in his and began massaging her fingers.
“Because you're men,” she said patiently, sagging with exhaustion, grimacing at the ache in her hand.
“What's that have to do with it?”
Too tired to argue, she shook her head, rubbing her temple with her free hand. “They don't want you or Gibbs knowing what they have to say to their families. They want it to be private.”
“But you know; you wrote it!”
“Because I'm a woman.” She looked up to find him grinning, a sparkling glint in his eye. “What?”
“It would appear you’ve finally arrived.”
She shook her head in weary confusion. “Do you ever make any sense?”
“Don’t always have to—sometimes it’s easier not—but I am now. Don’t you see it? The men, they’ve accepted you. They trust you more than me or Gibbs. Bravo, luv! Bravo!”
Still smiling, he focused on her hand. The fingers were clawed inward, her index finger straight out in contrast. Hissing sharply when he found particularly tender places, he carefully worked each finger, loosening the joints and tendons, the warmth of his hands easing away the soreness.
“You need rum,” he said succinctly, rising from the table.
“I need something, but I don't think it's rum.”
She could hear him clattering about in the cabinet, but lacked the energy to look. The soft thunk of a glass bottle set on the table drew her attention.
“This is a particularly fine brandy.” Smiling as he gestured to the squat green bottle, he presented it with a grand sweep of his hand, as if it were royalty. “If this doesn't fix what ails you, then there's no fixin' you.”
She reached for the glass, only to have her hand gripped with a spasm, the glass skittering away from her fingertips. Gasping, she clutched her hand with the other, frantically trying to jerk the cramp away. Patiently pushing her hand away, clucking scolds with his tongue, he took her hand in his, sitting down next to her again.
“You're good at this,” she observed, wincing sharply. Softly calloused, from years of handling ropes and facing the elements, his hands were still comforting and soothing, remarkably warm. Deftly, his long fingers slid up and down hers, divining where the most tender places would lurk.
“Years of practice, luv,” he sighed, intent on his task. His eyelashes spread in a dark arc across his cheeks as his eyes lowered. “After hours of sword practice, there were times I couldn't move me fingers enough to let go. Always had to do me business before, because I couldn't hold me own cock to do it after.”
She sputtered a laugh, shaking her head in dismay. “Well, I guess that would be a problem, wouldn't it?”
“You've no idea,” he continued, one corner of his mouth tugging upward. “Bloody difficult to attend your business with the wrong hand.”
Watching his fingers work their magic, her eyes traveled up his arm, to the brand on his right wrist. Often partially obscured either by the cloth wrapping that held his palm protector in place, or his shirt sleeve, she had never actually seen it in full. Impulsively, she reached out a finger then jerked back, concerned with possibly offending him.
“Can I see?” she asked tentatively.
“Not much to look at,” he replied off-handedly, but put out his arm, anyway.
The back of his hand cradled in her palm, she pushed back his sleeve, exposing his wrist. With one finger, she lightly traced the “P”, studying it carefully. Old and well healed, the letter stood sharp and white against the bronze of his tan. Bold and stark, it made its own statement.
“It's so barbaric,” she murmured. “Can I ask about it?”
“Not much to tell; ancient history, actually,” he said, gazing down impassively.
“Ancient history is locked away in books,” she said levelly, looking up at him. “You carry that with you everyday. I've seen brandings; they're horrible.”
“Not the worst,” he qualified, lifting one shoulder then dropping it.
“Do you mind?”
“I minded like hell when it was done,” he quipped, then sobered. “I think what bothered me the most was smelling me own flesh cooking, hearing it hiss and sizzle.”
Shuddering, she leaned hard against the table, steadying herself, letting a massive wave of nausea pass.
“It only lasted a few seconds; I don't remember anything after that.”
“Don't think about it much, I guess,” he said with a dismissive nod, pressing his lips together.
“I've seen you running your fingers over it,” she said, still tracing the mark with her own fingers.
“Do I?” He sounded surprised and slightly baffled. “Hadn't noticed.”
Pushing his sleeve up a little higher, she saw his tattoo complete for the first time as well, a soaring bird against a full-bursting sun.
He gave her a crooked smile, bits of gold glittering between his lips. “Seemed like a good idea at the time.”
Releasing his arm, she leaned back, studying him closely. “How did it happen, the brand, I mean?”
Taking a drink, he shook his head slightly, as if trying to dismiss the entire issue. Lost in his own distant thoughts for a moment, he set the bottle down, still gazing at it as he spoke.
“I was arrested,” he said slowly, choosing his words carefully. “I broke the law, me employer's law, that is. Refused to deliver a cargo, so he had me arrested. Declared me a pirate, and did this,” he finished, nodding toward his arm.
“Somehow, I don't think it was quite that simple,” she chided, mildly skeptical.
The kohled eyes widened with discovery. “Can't get much past you, can I?” he said, shaking his head, abashed. Heaving a long, silent sigh, he began again. “I was a merchantman at the time. Fairly young to be captain already, but I'd worked me way up the ranks quickly and had me own ship for a couple years. I was the youngest to make captain in the Company's history. Finally, one day, me employer took a dislike to me; must have irritated him somehow or another.” He glanced up quickly then down to the table. “So, he decided to teach me a lesson, gave me Hell's cargo.” Pausing, he rolled the word in his mouth before he could actually speak it. “Slaves.”
Stopping, he took another drink, his gaze never leaving the table. His sharp profile was rimmed in gold by the candles on the table, his ornaments flashing an occasional spark with his movement. Overhead, there was a soft rumble of thunder, and it began to rain.
“It was awful,” he continued, shuddering. His gravel-voice dropped to a hoarse whisper. “I'd only passed ships like that, before. The smell, even then from well across the water, was bad enough. And the sounds...” His voice faded, and then he shook himself, like he was trying to rid himself of the memory. “I couldn't bear it. I couldn't bear what it was doing to those poor wretches, and I couldn't bear what it was doing to me ship; breaking her spirit, it was.”
He looked up, then, his eyes wide, seemingly shocked at his own recollections.
“I was doing things I never thought I'd do, on the verge of not recognizing who I was, anymore. I couldn't betray meself or me ship, so I beached her; turned all those poor devils loose.” He shook his head a little, dismayed. “We never were able to get that smell out of her. It was months before I could get the smell out of me head. Anyway,” he went on with a long, cleansing exhale, “when I put in at Port Royal, my employer had me arrested, took me ship, declared me a pirate, for stealing his cargo, and did this,” he finished, tipping his head.
He gave her a long look, curious to see if she fully understood the implications.
“Once you've one of these,” he said, partially extending his arm in illustration, “there's no going back; you're a pirate, forever. Until you're captured again, then you're hung. I had to choose which kind of Hell I wanted; pirate was the only choice. I could have never lived with the other.”
She watched, as he tipped the bottle for another drink, seeing him for the first time, understanding then, the contradictions she had witnessed in him, from the very beginning. Uneasy, he clearly knew she was staring, and was giving her the opportunity to view inside, for a few moments, at least. He looked up again, afraid to see what her reaction would be, searching for the response he feared, but needed to know. Uncertain and distrusting, that quickly, the curtain was closed.
Rolling the neck of the bottle between his fingers, he was quiet, only the jangle of his ornaments and the leather creak of his belts as he moved and the rain pattering on the deck above, breaking the silence.
“Captain Jack Sparrow was born that day.” Setting the bottle down, gave her a grim smile, the candlelight sparking one eye. “And I've been celebrating his life since.”
“So, your tattoo came after?”
“Why do you ask?” He didn't seem to mind the question, only curious as to her point.
“Because, if it was before,” she began thoughtfully. “The brand would have been an attempt to clip your wings, as it were.”
“And, if it came after?”
“Then, it was your way of rising above what was done, an affront to whoever it was that did that to you.” Pausing, she looked down at his arm, as it rested on the table. “Bird on your arm and freedom over your heart. Nothing can keep you from soaring.” She smiled at his startled look. “I've seen it, when your shirt was pulled over.”
He tilted his head slightly, the light playing across his face, giving her a speculative look.
“Sometimes, I think you have a touch of the witch in you.” Pausing, he looked in wonderment. “You've the sight, it would seem. It’s those cursed eyes; there's no hiding from you.”
Reaching to him, she laid a reassuring hand on his arm. “I'm no one to hide from.”
“So it would seem,” he said softly, resigned. “So it would seem.