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Allegiance - Chapter

by The Stowaway


At sea, east of the Leeward Islands

Will Turner felt the deck shudder beneath him as the ship took yet another broadside. He could see little from where he huddled at the foot of the main mast, through the fog of burnt powder and the smoke, but he could hear – all too clearly. He heard Captain Smithson bellowing orders from the quarterdeck. He heard the screams of the wounded sailors and the panicked shrieking of those few passengers who had survived the direct hit to the cabins aft.

Battle at sea was not as he had imagined it when listening so eagerly to sailors' tales back home in England. To be sure, when the lookout had spotted black sails this morning at dawn, he had thrilled, boy-like, at the thought of seeing pirates – real pirates – at last. The desperate chase, with the Bristol crowding sail and the Captain – a canny sailor – wringing every bit of speed possible from the trade winds, had been exciting, despite the inexorable way the pursuer had gained on them. He had hung over the rail, watching as she grew larger - that black ship with the tattered sails that nonetheless flew so swiftly - until the Captain had sent him and the other passengers below for safety and to be out of the way of the crew. He had gone reluctantly and had taken the first opportunity to slip back up on deck; making himself small as he could and sitting quietly as the crew worked with frantic haste to prepare the guns. If they noticed him at all, none spoke to him. Once the enemy was in range and the fight began, he held his place - transfixed by fear and unable to move.

The Bristol was slowing, her motion growing sluggish as she took on water. He heard the order to throw the starboard cannon overboard and knew the Captain sought to raise the shattered wounds in her side above the waterline. One by one, heavy splashes sounded and the ship began to list, the angle of the deck increasing with each lightening of her burden.

Suddenly, he wanted to see what was going on; he looked up at the rigging. At that moment chain shot whistled through the shrouds above his head and he cowered down; all thought of going aloft fled. He wished he’d never left England. He wanted his mother, forgetting in his terror that she had died last Spring.

The sailors were firing with muskets over the starboard rail. The drifting smoke parted as her captor came alongside the Bristol, towering above the doomed merchantman, and Will got his first sight of pirates. The black ship's deck was crowded with yelling, grimacing men waving cutlasses and knives. Above them in the rigging others threw grapnels that fell to the Bristol's deck with a thunk or tangled in the tattered shrouds. In seconds the two ships were fast and the marauders pouring over the side.

Will scuttled backward around the mast and sought to hide himself in the debris heaped around the foot of it, pulling a scrap of sail over his head, just as the main body of the pirates rushed up, intent upon taking the quarterdeck. By ill luck, the leader - Will guessed he was the captain from his huge feathered hat and his once-elegant coat - looked down and spotted him. The pirate stopped, allowing the other raiders to stream past him, as he stared at Will with an arrested expression upon his scarred face. A huge black, his half-naked body covered in a bizarre pattern of scars, appeared at the other's elbow, regarding Will with the same fixed interest.

"Well now, what have we here?" said the first pirate. He gestured with his head and the black darted forward and snatched Will from his hiding place. Will kicked and fought but the big man overpowered him with ease, dragging the panicked boy upright and pinning him back against his own massive torso.

"Stand still, boy," the pirate captain rasped, "nobody's hurt ye… yet." And he reached a grimy hand toward Will's chest, where, to his horror, Will saw that his golden medallion was swinging free of his shirt.

"Don't touch that," Will cried, wriggling desperately, "don't take it! Please! My father sent it to me!"

The pirate chuckled and grasped the coin, breaking the chain with a sharp yank. "Did he now?" he said, handing the necklace to the monkey on his shoulder, who tucked it into a pocket of his tiny coat. "Then I think you'll be coming with us. We've a use for you." He drew his dagger. Speaking to the black, he ordered, "Take him to the Pearl; my cabin." Reversing the knife he struck Will's temple a swift and cunning blow with the hilt and Will knew no more.

************

When Will opened his eyes the light of a branch of candles, placed on a low table near where he lay, made him close them again with a groan. His head ached as if devils with hammers were at work inside his skull. When he tried to move, he discovered he was bound hand and foot. The pain in his head made it impossible to think. He opened his eyes again - the merest slit - and looked around. He lay on the deck in a large cabin. He saw the legs of tables and chairs, dark and ornate - like nothing he'd seen anywhere on the Bristol - and memory returned of the pirate attack and his own capture. He was aboard the black ship.

Escape! Perhaps he could get back to the Bristol - no-one seemed to be watching him. He listened but could hear no sound of battle. What was happening? If only he could get free… He tried again to move his arms and even that slight effort made his stomach roil and the pain in his head redouble. Confused and sick, Will lay half-fainting until startled to trembling alertness by the sound of booted feet approaching. Heart thumping, he held himself still. The boots stopped beside him and a toe nudged his hip.

"Ye're awake," his captor said. "Open your eyes." Will felt a tugging jerk and his ankles were free. Then the chill blade of a knife slid between his wrists and the cord, severing his bonds with a flick. "I said, open your eyes. Sit up." Will rolled over and sat, rubbing his wrists as feeling returned to them in a rush of tingling pain. He massaged each ankle, head bent, not daring to look up. "Thirsty?" the voice asked. Aware for the first time of his parched mouth, he nodded. A flagon was held before him. He put out his hand and it was moved beyond his reach. "Look at me, boy." Will raised his head. The pirate captain sat watching him with cold eyes. Will gave him stare for stare, praying desperately that his terror did not show. At last the pirate handed him the flagon. "Ye don't lack for spirit, at any rate," he chuckled.

Will drank, and choked on the thin, sour wine that made his tongue curl and his belly flop queasily. "May I have some water, please?" he asked, greatly daring.

A contemptuous shrug. "Suit yourself; it's yonder."

Will got to his feet - which still tingled and throbbed as the blood returned to them - staggered to the indicated pitcher and drank thirstily. The water settled his stomach and eased some of the pain in his head. He set the pitcher down again. Gripping it with both hands, he tried to think. If they were going to kill him, then why offer him a drink? If they did not intend to murder him, then what did they want? He could feel the pirate's gaze upon his back and his skin crawled. He took a deep breath. Better to face it, he told himself. He turned, head high, hoping his trembling knees would not betray him. "Where am I?" he asked.

"Aboard the Black Pearl." The pirate continued to watch him. "I be Captain Barbossa," he added, with a mocking half-bow.

The boy shuddered. He had known already, but hearing it spoken shook him nonetheless. Hope faded; still, he had to ask. "Where is the Bristol?"

Barbossa smiled unpleasantly. "Back there," he replied, with a jerk of his head.

That was no answer. "What about the other passengers and crew?"

Barbossa shrugged. Will read their fate in his eyes. He felt a sharp pang. So many of his friends - dead at the hands of this pirate and his men. And what was to become of him now? Will straightened his shoulders and raised his chin once more.

"Why…." He choked, took another deep breath and tried again. "Why did you bring me here?"

"Because you're one of us, young Will Turner," came the astonishing reply.

Will gaped at Barbossa. "I'm… How do you know my name?"

Barbossa reached into his coat and drew out Will's medallion. "Because you had this from your Da." He swung it gently on its chain. "Who else would you be but Bootstrap's son? He spoke of ye often and often."

"Bootstrap?" Will frowned. What did the man mean? "My father is Bill Turner."

"Aye, Bootstrap Bill Turner," Barbossa nodded. "As good a pirate as ever sailed Spanish Main, he were."

Will bristled. How dared this outlaw say such a thing? "My father is not a pirate!" he cried.

Barbossa's laugh, Will thought, was as frightening as his smile. "Not now he's not, boy, but he was."

"Was?" Anger gave way to bewilderment. "What are you saying?"

"Bootstrap's been at the bottom of the ocean for nigh on two years," Barbossa shrugged yet again.

Will's head spun. He grasped the table behind him for support. "My father's dead?"

"Gone to Davy Jones's locker, he is," the pirate nodded. He tucked the medallion back in his pocket and placed his hand over it. "I'm sorry boy."

He did not sound sorry, Will thought.

"It was the fondest wish of his heart to take you with him to sea and show you the ways o' the Brethren. Many's the time we talked of it right here in this very cabin," Barbossa continued. He shook his head. "But it was not to be."

His father was gone. Will had come all this way to find him, alone, all across the ocean. It seemed he was to be alone forever, now. It was too much to bear. He felt his eyes fill with tears and gasped, fighting them back. "How did he die?"

"It was all the fault of a thieving blackguard name of Jack Sparrow." Barbossa leaned forward, elbow resting on one knee. "You remember that, young Will. Captain Jack Sparrow, he calls himself."

"Jack Sparrow." Will repeated the name, committing it to memory. "He killed my father?"

"Ye might say that, aye," Barbossa nodded.

Will's fists clenched as rage and hate flooded his heart. It overflowed, pouring through him in a burning torrent. Suddenly he felt powerful - huge and strong. "Then I will kill him," he declared.

Barbossa sat back and laughed. "Spoken like a true pirate. I told ye, ye're one of us." There was a satisfied air about him, smug as a cat in cream.

As suddenly as it had come, Will's rage deserted him, leaving him trembling. He sat down on a nearby chest and put his head in his hands. Once again, he fought against tears. There was silence for some time. At last, he wiped his nose on his sleeve and looked at Barbossa. "Why did you attack the Bristol? They carried no treasure."

Barbossa grinned, a mirthless baring of teeth. "To rescue you, Will Turner."

Once again, Will was astonished. "Rescue me!" he cried. "I don't believe you! Rescue me from what?"

"Aye, saved you we did - from hanging… or worse," Barbossa replied. "It was only a matter of time, boy, until someone recognized your name and what do you think they'd have done with a pirate's whelp such as yourself, eh?"

"They would have hanged me?" Will stared at the pirate. "How can that be? I had done nothing wrong."

"That don't matter," Barbossa shook his head knowingly. "'Tis enough for most folks that you're a pirate. You'd have found no mercy in them. They might have taken you for a spy sent to ferret out information for us."

Will could not take it in. The Bristol had been a friendly place. Many of the crew and passengers had taken an interest in him, looking out for him during the first weeks at sea, before he found his sea legs and lost some of his homesickness. "But I met with nothing but kindness…" he stammered.

"Aye, whilst they believed you one o' them and not one of us," Barbossa chuckled. "A fortunate thing it is that ye never showed your father's medallion to a soul on that ship or you'd have seen them change soon enough." He patted the breast of his coat. "It was this medallion that led us to ye."

"How?"

"The gold calls to us, boy. We'd have found you no matter where you were." Barbossa took out the medallion once again, weighing it in the palm of his hand with a thoughtful look. "You don't know what it is your Da sent you, do ye?" he asked.

Will shook his head. "No."

"This coin once lay in the hand of Cortez himself, boy. The Aztecs - you know who they were?" Will nodded. "Aye, well. The Aztecs struck a bargain with Cortez long ago. If Cortez would call off his armies and stop slaughtering those heathen savages, they'd pay him blood money. Eight hundred eighty two pieces of gold, each just like this one. Well, Cortez took the gold when they delivered it in a carved stone chest. But he also got something else with it he didn't expect - a terrible curse. The heathen gods, ye see, had taken a hand in things. Any man who takes a piece of gold from that chest is cursed for eternity."

"Cursed?" Will asked. "How?"

"Food and drink," the pirate said somberly, "cease to perform their offices. No matter how much one drinks, one's thirst is never quenched. Food turns to ash in one's mouth. Starving of the hunger, parched with thirst - yet unable to die. Neither living nor dead, never ceasing to suffer; and in the moonlight to take one's true form of rot and decay. Forever." Barbossa stared out the cabin windows for some time. "We didn't believe the tale. When we found the chest on the Isla de Muerta we took the gold, all of it. And we have paid."

"You… You are cursed?" Will asked.

Barbossa nodded. "The lot of us. And no way to end our torment, save one."

"What is that?"

"Every one of the eight hundred eighty two pieces of gold must be restored to the chest, and the blood repaid."

Despite himself, Will shuddered. "What blood?"

"The blood of each man who took a piece of the gold," Barbossa replied. He held up Will's medallion. "This is the last one. When this goes back into the chest - with a few drops of blood from your father's son, we will be free."

"You need my blood to break the curse?" Will asked.

Barbossa nodded. "We do, boy. We're bound for the Isla de Muerta now. One day to get there, another to navigate the hidden passage and our torment will be over, thanks to you."

A few drops of blood, Barbossa had said. That didn't sound too terrible, Will thought. But these were pirates. So he asked, "Once the curse is lifted, what will become of me?"

"Why, a likely lad such as yourself, and a pirate born?" Barbossa replied, becoming jovial. "There's a place here on the Pearl for ye, to be sure. We owe it to old Bootstrap's memory - him bein' our mate and all. You'd be cabin boy, while you get your growth and learn to fight like a man."

Will looked doubtful. If these were his father's friends, then perhaps he belonged with them, but they were pirates.

"You've nowhere else to go, boy," Barbossa tone was almost wheedling. "This is where you belong - not with them as'd hang you like a dog for being the son of Bootstrap Bill."

After a long moment, Will nodded. Barbossa rose and clapped him on the back.

"Good choice, lad," he cried. "We'll bring you up as would make your father proud. It's the pirate way. We'll look out for ye, never fear."

*********************

Will most of spent the next two days in the great cabin of the Pearl. Barbossa - or the Captain, as he must now learn to call him ("If ye're to be a member of the crew, boy, best begin as you mean to go on.") - allowed him out on deck for only the briefest periods, never alone and never at night.

"Best not," was all he would say. Once, when Will, bored and longing to climb the rigging, pressed him for reasons, Barbossa had rounded on him and snapped, "Because I am the Captain, Will Turner. I am not obliged to explain myself to anyone. Remember that!" and Will had subsided into chastened silence.

During long hours alone in the cabin, Will had discovered a chest of books. Some few were in other languages - those he ignored - and many others appeared to be poetry or plays, but two held his interest. One was a bestiary, will illustrations of exotic and outlandish creatures to be found at the ends of the earth. He read of the habits of the strange creatures and dreamed of traveling to see them for himself. The other book was better still, for being the more practical. It was an atlas. He spent one whole afternoon, stretched out beneath the stern windows, poring over map after map - tracing coastlines and islands and mountain ranges - imagining what they looked like from the deck of a ship.

He took his meals alone in the cabin. Barbossa would not stay with him when he ate, which suited Will very well. The terrible longing in the Captain's eyes at the sight of food was unsettling.

Will slept on a pallet spread in a corner. It was comfortable enough - he had slept rougher on the Bristol - but his rest was disturbed by the pacing of Captain Barbossa. The man appeared never to sleep and Will guessed that this, too, was part of the curse.

************

On the second night of their voyage to the Isla de Muerta they were hove to, awaiting dawn to negotiate the hidden passage. Barbossa had gone on deck. Will was restless from being confined so much, when he had used to be active all day. He fidgeted with a draughts board he'd found in the chest with the books for some time but he could not sit still for long. He saw through the great stern windows that the moon was riding high, laying a broad track of silver across the ruffled surface of the sea. He longed to feel the breeze and to see the sky open wide over his head, the stars winking and twinkling at him through the rigging, but the Captain had forbidden him to go on deck at night. Perhaps, if he wasn't seen…?

Will hesitated only a moment before crossing the cabin and entering the passageway. His bare feet made no noise as he crept to the doors that separated him from the open air. A long pause to listen and he decided there were very few of the pirates nearby. He heard an occasional word and some unfamiliar creaking, but nothing to indicate that the deck was crowded. He took a deep breath and laid hold of the door. It was placed half under the stairs to the quarterdeck - he thought the shadows there might help to hide him. He breathed a silent prayer that the hinges wouldn't squeak and eased the door open.

The sight that met his eyes held him motionless with horror. Skeletons! Everywhere he looked there were skeletons moving about the business of maintaining the Pearl. And such skeletons! Dressed in shreds and tatters, with rags of skin and rotting flesh clinging to their ghost-white bones - they were a nightmare come to life. They creaked as they moved. Paralyzed by the ghastly sight, Will cowered in the doorway, eyes wide. When he saw one with the coat and hat of the Captain striding toward him, he cried out and fled, letting the door slam to behind him.

Will was huddled on his pallet - curled into as small a ball as he could manage in a vain attempt to stop the trembling of his limbs - when Barbossa entered the cabin, restored to his customary appearance by the lack of moonlight below decks.

"What the devil do you mean, disobeying my orders?" Barbossa snarled, coming to stand over him. "Stand up when I'm speaking to you, boy." One big hand jerked Will to his feet, while the other dealt him a backhanded blow to the face, hard enough to make his eyes water.

Will shook himself free of the pirate's grip and backed against the bulkhead, raising shaking hands to ward off further blows, but Barbossa made no move to follow him.

"Why do you think I forbade you the deck after dark?" he asked. "It was to spare you the sight of our curse." He sighed and turned away, sitting heavily in his favorite chair. "Come here, boy." Will shook his head, with a stifled sob. Barbossa sighed again and held out his hand, palm up. "I'll not strike ye again, you have my word. Now come here to me. There are matters to be explained."

Moving slowly, Will approached the Captain's chair, stopping several feet away.

"Closer," Barbossa said and Will reluctantly obeyed, moving to stand at the Captain's knee. "Now, do you understand why I struck ye just now?" Barbossa asked.

"Because I went on deck when you told me not to," Will replied softly, looking down.

"Because you disobeyed an order from your Captain," Barbossa corrected him. "Tomorrow, you will sign the Articles and become a full member of our company. You will be bound, as are all your mates, to obey me. Failure to do so is punishable by flogging and even, in certain cases, death. That is our law and it is a fair one, for all our lives can depend upon the instant obedience of each man." Will tried not to flinch as the Captain's hand came to rest upon his shoulder. "I would not wish to see you flogged, Will Turner, and so I struck ye to drive home the lesson. Obey me in all things, as you would your father, and you will prosper. Do you understand me now?"

"Yes, sir," Will nodded. He thought of the skeletal pirates again and shuddered.

"Don't think of it," Barbossa advised, as if he could see into Will's head. "Come tomorrow, we will never again take such hideous shapes. You, boy, will free us from the curse." He shook Will gently for emphasis." And for that, you will have the gratitude of every man aboard this ship. Now, see if you can't get some sleep."

Will looked up. "Is that an order, sir?" he asked. There was the faintest lightening of the troubled expression about his eyes.

Barbossa's own eyes narrowed and then he gave a crack of laughter. "Cheeky sprat," he exclaimed. "No, it was a suggestion - do with it what you will. Just stay in this cabin until I tell you otherwise - and that's an order." He was gone on the words and Will slumped against the table.

After a time he began to shiver, although the night was warm. He lay down and rolled himself in his blankets but it was long before he ceased to tremble and longer still before he slept.

*********

Barbossa meanwhile had gone on deck and summoned all hands to a meeting at the foremast. When everyone had gathered, he spoke for some time in a low voice concerning Will and his place among them. "Well then," he said at last, "have I made myself clear? I've plans for Bootstrap's whelp and there is no room for meddling by any of you lot. The boy is under my protection - no man may lay a finger on him, neither in anger nor in lust. Hear me well, ye gobs - keep your hands to yourselves and your pricks in your britches, or else. And remember, he thinks Jack Sparrow killed his Da. Say nothing to disabuse him of that notion. Even think of defying me in this and you'll lose naught but your life."

************

By noon the next day, the Pearl had reached the Isla de Muerta. The boats were lowered and Will took his place in the lead one with Barbossa. Few words were spoken, but he could sense the excitement building to an almost unbearable degree as they rowed across the inlet and into the mouth of the tunnel. As they moved further along the channel toward the cave, the daylight behind them faded first to grey then to black, and the torches they carried began to cast a glittering sheen along the damp walls. Looking down at the water, Will saw golden reflections from the coins scattered along the shallow bottom.

The keel of their boat grated on rock and the rowers leapt out, hauling it up until it was securely grounded. Barbossa stepped ashore, drawing Will along with him, as the other boats landed to either side of them. The Captain kept hold of his arm as the crowd of pirates surged through a narrow, twisting passage and out at last into an enormous cavern.

Will stopped in his tracks, utterly amazed at the sight before him. Light streamed down from a huge hole in the roof, illuminating the astonishing hoard accumulated by the crew of the Black Pearl. In that blaze of sunlight, he saw heaps of treasure piled up on all sides; mountains of gold and silver and pearls rose up higher than his head. Gold coins and nuggets lay everywhere, in some places a foot deep on the floor of the cave and piled up in teetering stacks in every niche and alcove. Wealth past counting lay scattered about like drifts of golden snow.

Barbossa chuckled. "Never imagined anything like this, did ye, boy?" Will shook his head, still gaping at the riches before him. "There's a fortune to be made, with a good crew and a bit of luck. You won't be wondering anymore why your Da chose to throw in his lot with pirates, eh?" Will shook his head again. "When you come of age," Barbossa continued, "Bootstrap's share o' this will be yours - provided you join our company as your father wished."

Will looked up, his eyes huge. "Really?"

Barbossa nodded. "Your inheritance, boy - if, mind you, ye can learn our ways and keep yourself alive. Are you with us?" Will, dazzled by the golden vista now unfolding before his mind's eye, bobbed his head.

The buccaneers had scattered through the cavern, rooting through piles of treasure, or adding to them from sacks and chests they had brought with them from the Pearl. Their shouts and the clatter and clash of metal echoed from the high rock walls, redoubling the noise to a deafening roar. Barbossa drew Will along, toward the center of the cave, where the light fell strongest on a small hillock in the center of a pool of water. The sloping sides were covered in loot, and sitting on the top in a shaft of sunlight stood a large stone chest.

"Is that the chest?" Will asked in an awed voice.

"It is," Barbossa replied. "Come along, time to get this done with."

They climbed up to stand beside the chest. It was carved with strange symbols, like the ones on Will's medallion, but somehow sinister. Will shivered in the hot sunlight.

Barbossa waited until all the crew had gathered around the rise and then he kicked the cover off the chest. "There it is!" he cried, as a collective sigh went up from the watching men. "The cursed treasure, all save one single piece."  He drew Will's coin from his vest pocket. "Gentlemen, here be Bootstrap's coin - the eight hundred and eighty second piece of Aztec gold. And here," he continued, turning and pointing at Will, "be Bootstrap's son."

A low growl arose from the pirates. "Get on with it!" someone yelled. Shouts of agreement were heard all through the chamber.

Barbossa picked up a knife that had been lying on top of the gold pieces. It was chipped and notched - Will could not tell if it was made of gold or of gilded stone - and bore brown stains, as of dried blood. He held it high, its pitted surface glinting in the sun, and a hush fell over the buccaneers.

"Begun by blood," Barbossa intoned, "by blood undone." He took Will's hand and pressed the gold medallion into his palm. Then he lowered the knife and drew it lightly across the base of his thumb, carving a long, shallow slice into the fleshy part of Will's hand. Will jerked and gasped at the sting of the cut, but Barbossa grip was firm, folding the boy's fingers over the coin and holding them closed. "Now," he said, "drop it."

Will opened his hand and tilted it. The coin, slippery with blood, slid off his palm and tumbled, flashing, into the chest, landing with a tiny crash atop the others. There was utter silence for the count of ten and then the cheers began. Wave after wave of hoarse jubilation crashed and echoed through the cavern. Men danced about, flinging their arms wildly above their heads. Some wept for joy. Will, descending from the little hill with Barbossa, was engulfed by a mass of pirates shouting his name and shaking his hand or pounding him ecstatically on the back. Presently, as the first paroxysms subsided, cries of "Food!" and "Rum!" began to be heard and there was a concerted rush for the boats.  

Back on the Pearl a feast was hastily laid out - much of it having been prepared over the past two days in anticipation of this very event - and casks of rum were broached, as well as a barrel of beer and some dozens of bottles of wine. With no ceremony whatsoever the starving men, so long deprived, fell upon the food and drink like wild animals, gobbling and guzzling and reaching greedily for more even with their hands and mouths stuffed full, until their bodies, unaccustomed to sustenance, rebelled and they fell senseless and spewing to the deck. Will watched in appalled fascination until Barbossa, who alone among them held himself back from the worst excesses, appearing in his relative restraint to be the only civilized being aboard, whispered in his ear. "Don't think too badly of them, boy. Poor blighters; it's been a long time and they'd begun to lose hope they'd ever be free again. Can't blame them for going a little mad. A day or two and they'll have themselves in hand again. Now come below. It's time you signed the Articles, all right and proper."

Will followed him into the great cabin with mixed feelings. His relief at escaping the disgusting mess on deck was tempered with trepidation. Signing the Articles meant he would truly become a pirate. There could be no going back after that. Barbossa had allowed him to read the tattered parchment two days ago and he recalled but too well the words "if any man desert the ship…he shall be shot or maroon'd" and they had chilled him. Once he put his name to that he would not be permitted to change his mind; it was very clear. But his father had been a member of the Pearl's crew. A pirate. And that meant he was a pirate, too. Already an outlaw - Barbossa assured him - and subject to hanging. So what choice did he have? And there was the gold…

The Captain beckoned him to the desk and put the Articles before him. Will glanced up and saw that Barbossa was watching him closely. "Well, boy?" was all he said.

Will picked up the pen and signed his name.

**********

Life as cabin boy of the Black Pearl was hard, but Will didn't notice. He had to work, to be sure, but didn't everyone? And if Barbossa - a demanding master - beat him on occasion, it was no worse than the schoolmaster's thrashings back home and not nearly as bad as the time the sexton caught him and Dickon drawing on the tombstones in the churchyard with charcoal, the summer before Dickon fell from the roof of the tithe barn and broke his neck.

He waited on the Captain's table, he helped the cook, he fed Jack the monkey, and he kept the great cabin in order. Often, in the long, lazy afternoons, Barbossa would toss him a book and bid him read aloud, while the Captain himself lounged, feet up, munching on one of his endless supply of apples or drinking wine. He was given a tiny cabin of his own, formerly a storage locker - his hammock nearly brushed the bulkheads on either side - next to the great cabin and knew himself fortunate to be so favoured.

When the Pearl went into battle, he served the gun crews as powder monkey. He swiftly became accustomed to the danger and scampered to and from the powder magazine, nimble as a monkey in very truth. There was an exhilaration of spirits that came over him at such times - a thrill he felt as the Pearl, whose Captain chose his victims wisely, won engagement after engagement. Later, Barbossa would explain to him that this was natural - that pirates were as wolves preying upon witless sheep - and thus his excitement proved him to be a true son of his father. It was discovered that he kept a clear head and a steady hand, and he was called upon to help dress the wounds that were the inevitable consequence of even the most successful actions.

The crew called him their luck and treated him with rough friendliness, alternately teasing him and teaching him to be a sailor. Under their tutelage, he learned the Pearl, stem to stern, with all her caprices and secrets. They taught him to splice and knot, how to set a sail, and how to bend on a new one in a rising wind.

Captain Barbossa, by far the best swordsman among them, undertook to teach him to fight. The lessons always left Will bruised and aching with fatigue - for Barbossa drove him hard - but with an ever-increasing respect for the skill of his teacher and a fierce desire to grow to equal him.

He became familiar with the port of Tortuga, whither they went to re-supply. Unlike most of the crew, he slept aboard the Pearl, going ashore only when sent on errands by the Captain, who charged him strictly to avoid all strangers and tell his name to no-one. He learned all the haunts where the Pearl's men spent their leave, low taverns and whorehouses - where he became adept at brushing off the advances of whores of each sex (and of none). Often, on sailing day, he'd make the rounds early in the morning, when most revelers were sunk in sodden sleep, to collect strayed crewmen and hale them back on board.

And, best of all in this new life, Will loved the sea. He gloried in her every mood and aspect, from luminous dawn in a glassy calm, to a full gale with great waves crashing over the bow beneath black and boiling skies and the rigging taut and singing. He knew the sea to be his true home; he couldn't imagine ever again living on land.

One day, after the Pearl had raided a Spanish town and left it, a smoking ruin, far astern, the Captain called Will to the great cabin and showed him a large book, bound in black leather, that had been taken as plunder. The first few pages, written in a clerkly hand, were - for Barbossa knew some Spanish - a history of the town. It was unfinished and the bulk of the book was yet a blank. The Captain told Will that he desired to set down his own history and that of the Black Pearl and that Will was to be his scribe. Accordingly for several hours that day and from time to time for weeks afterward, Barbossa would pace the cabin, telling tales while Will wrote them down. If some of the stories seemed improbable or too highly-coloured to be real, Will did not say so, for nothing roused the Captain's temper faster than what he took to be aspersions cast upon his honour or truthfulness and Will had no desire to borrow trouble. So he transcribed what was dictated to him, scrambling at times to keep up, and made no comment.

**************

Will had been with the Pearl for nearly a year, when Barbossa at last allowed him to go ashore with a raiding party. The defenses - a single gun battery on the mole - had been reduced to rubble by bombardment - and the town lay open and ready for the taking. Terrified citizens could be seen fleeing up the road that led to the hills, but, as their twin goals were the warehouse and the church, this did not concern the pirates over much.

Once ashore, they split into two parties. One set to work plundering the warehouse on the mole; the other, of which Will was a part, made for the church. As they dashed through the narrow streets toward the village square, they encountered a small force of militia, hastily assembled by the mayor. Before these volunteers could fire their blunderbusses or raise their pikes, the pirates cut them down and swept on unchecked. Will, caught in the press, slipped in the blood and trod on a dying man. His stomach heaved.

They dashed across the square and into the church. Sweeping the altar clean, they tossed the gold into a sack and turned to leave. The square, which had been empty of life just moments before, now contained some fifty villagers, screaming epithets and brandishing makeshift weapons. Will saw pitchforks, boat hooks, cleavers and machetes waving in the air above the crowd gathered to block their escape. "Sacrilege!" they screamed. "Animals!"  

The raiding party was nearly thirty strong and better armed than their opponents. They fired their pistols at the villagers, dropping several of the leaders, and then closed ranks and charged. It was soon over - the defenders were routed and fled, leaving a number of dead and wounded behind. Will gazed around, bewildered. He had fought - his sword was stained red - but the confusion was so great he could remember nothing clearly. Lying on the cobblestones nearby was a young man hardly older than he, gasping and clutching his bloody side. Moved by he knew not what, perhaps it was pity, Will took a step in his direction, only to stop as the wounded man raised his head and spat at him. "Godless animal!" the man cried, "Murderer! Scum!" The blazing hatred Will saw in his face stuck him like a blow. Someone grabbed his arm and then they were running, down the hill and back to the boats.

That evening, on the Pearl, as the others drank themselves legless in celebration of yet another victory, Will sat apart, brooding. They had toasted him - his crewmates - and he had drunk with them, knowing it was expected, but he felt none of their simple glee over the rich haul they had made. He wondered if the wounded man who had shouted at him would live, whether he had a family to take care of him…

He looked up with a start as Barbossa sat down next to him. "I hear you gave a good account of yourself today," the Captain said. Will looked away and said nothing. Barbossa went on, "Did you clean your sword?" Will nodded. "Let me see, then."  Will drew the blade and Barbossa took it, holding it up in the flaring torchlight, turning it this way and that. Satisfied, he handed it back. "Well done, boy." Will sheathed his sword and remained silent.

"They are sheep," Barbossa said, after a time.

Will sighed. "He looked at me as if he hated me."

"And so he does," Barbossa replied. "The weak always hate the strong. Hate - and envy; for don't you think sheep would become wolves, if they could?"

"Yes, but…"

"They will kill you if they can, boy. This is why you must always be faster and stronger. Never give them a chance. Be ruthless, strike first, or they will drag you down."

"That is cruel," Will replied.

"The world is a cruel place," Barbossa nodded. "And Fortune a faithless jade."  He dropped a heavy hand on Will's shoulder and gave it a shake. "Only the toughest survive. You have it in you to be a great pirate one day. Harden your heart, lad, and make your father's ghost proud."

Will nodded. As soon as he could do so unnoticed, he slipped away to his hammock, where he lay long awake and slept at last, only to dream of blood and screams and a pair of accusing eyes.
 

 

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