Her lips were dry and beginning to crack. Beads of sweat ran down her neck. The burning gaze of the sun was relentless: her thick cotton shirt clung to her back as waves of sickness rose in time with the rising temperature. The crushing binding around her chest made it hard to breathe as she pulled the thick, coarse rope over the gunwale. Each motion increased the ache between her shoulders and further numbed her tired fingers. Both palms were now criss-crossed with fine scratches so that the salty water of the ocean stung and burned her skin.
Though her fair face was red raw, her body soaked and her muscles exhausted - Emma smiled.
She was free.
She scratched at the tufts of hair that clung to her neck and pulled her cap tighter over her ears.
The tavern was busy.
Hidden in a darkened corner, she hunched over the steaming bowl of stew, avoiding the gaze of those around her. They were mostly men: seasoned sailors with thick beards and tall tales. They laughed, smoked pipes and dealt cards - becoming louder with each sip of rum. Occasionally a bar wench walked by with a flagon of ale and offered to fill her tankard, but she shook her head and remained silent. She sat and watched and marveled.
In her old life she had seen nothing like this. There she had been hidden away - trapped - protected they had said. The adjustment to this world - the real world - had been difficult at first. She had learned to be wary, keep to herself, only interact with those she needed to. Yet still she was fascinated by their coarse words, bawdy tales and the simple earthy reality of these men of the sea.
Finally, sated enough that the only ache left was the glowing burn the sun had left behind on her skin, she pulled a few coins from her pocket and slipped out into the cool night.
Outside she decided to wander and lose herself in the narrow lanes of the part of town where they currently were docked. Its tall buildings and dark spaces provided a comforting anonymity. It had been weeks since she had been alone. The tender she had taken was a good one - a small crew, a long distance - perfect for her purpose of removing herself as far away as possible from the Enchanted Forest. But she longed to bathe, to remove her bindings and brush out her hair. Her fingers lingered at her cropped locks. They scraped the nape of her neck - tucked behind her ears and covered with a woolen cap. She tugged it off as she wandered - letting her fingers massage her scalp - relishing in the feeling of freedom.
In a small town square behind the tavern there was a stone well. Sitting on the low surrounding wall, she lowered its small bucket, claiming a pail of chilled water that she eagerly palmed over her face. Momentarily the burn on her skin diminished and she let the cool liquid trickily down her neck and over her chest.
Sighing, she lay back against the hoist, staring up at the dark night sky. Its infinite darkness calmed her in the moments when she began to feel regret. She liked to lie on deck and watch the twinkling of the constellations against the velvety black of the sky at night - occasionally veiled by a puff of faint cloud.
This was why she had to leave. Sweet freedom.
The vastness of possibility stretched out before her like an unwritten page. No longer was her life planned out for her in a series of orchestrated moves as though she were a chess piece. No. Now she made her own decisions.
And in some ways that was almost as terrifying as having no choice at all.
They were out on the open sea early the next morning eager to reach the next port - the quicker they changed cargoes the great the profit for a merchant seaman.
Once at sail, Emma was set to work showing the two young boys who they had picked up in port the ropes. Both were not yet in their teen years and even Emma towered above them. They looked awkward in their too big caps and baggy linen shirts.
"Do you have any questions?" Emma asked as they returned to the deck. They looked at each other uncertainly before shaking their heads. She felt sorry for them - clearly they were here to earn money for their kin. Most port families had at least one or two sons at sea. But still, they seemed so young.
After setting them to work scrubbing down the decks, she returned to her post checking the rigging.
A few minutes later a voice cried out, "Jack!"
Stumbling to her feet, she raced across the deck towards the voice.
Captain Avery was a short, stout man. No more than 50, but with greying hair, a long beard and cracked skin that spoke of a life at sea. More often than not he stank of rum. Most days he rarely rose before noon, leaving the ship in the hands of his first mate, Walters. But when he was awake and on deck, Emma knew he was not to be trifled with. He had a nasty tempter and an even nastier set of cat-o-nine tails.
"Where's my sextant?"
"Are you deaf, boy?" he growled, rapping the back of his hand across her ear until she winced in pain. "My sextant. It was in my cabin."
"I'm sorry sir, I have no idea…"
Emma recoiled a little as she saw his face curl into a wicked snarl. He was still drunk, she could clearly see from his bloodshot eyes and pink cheeks, probably had no idea what he was doing.
"Liar," he spat, baring his teeth.
She flinched, tensing her muscles, anticipating another whack around the head - it seemed she had been chosen as his whipping boy for the day.
The cries from the crow's next tore away his attention. High on the mast, a scrawny boy was waving his arms and gesturing to a point high on the horizon.
Growling, Avery stomped to the bow and pulled out his telescope.
Emma squinted against the morning sun that was now high in the sky, covering her eyes with her hand as she strained to see what had caused such consternation.
Then there is was: a flicker, a flash.
Blood red, lit from behind by the sun - like a glowing ruby. A flag. A red flag.
Emma sucked in a breath and felt her stomach drop. Pirates.
The crisp clash of metal.
The muffled crack of musket fire.
She ran across deck - her heart racing, two full buckets of water in her arms. The lower aft sail had begun to burn. She tossed the contents of the bucket at the crackling fire but it had little effect - merely eliciting a soft hiss of defiance from the flames.
Exhausted, she stumbled back towards the water butt.
The ship was almost upon them. The speed of its advancement had taken the crew by surprise. Avery dashed about - bellowing harsh demands, his face red and swollen. Walters was little calmer - pitching in himself to raise the sails higher in an attempt to raise some speed.
But Emma knew it was useless.
Her kingdom had had one of the best navys in all the realms and she knew this ship was old and slow compared to the lithe manoeuvrability of their approaching boat glided through the sea as if it were silk. Soon she could see the pink blurs of faces, then the rigging ropes of their sails came into focus, until finally they were at their side. Boarding ladders were hung, shots fired, screams rose, blackened smoke filled the air - then, darkness…
Her hands were tied behind her back.
Her head ached, a dull throb at her brow. She winced.
Something must have hit her head. She wriggled against the ropes and they dug into her skin.
Carefully, she peeled open her eyes and looked around. The deck was awash with the crimson dampness of spilled blood. She saw their attackers checking the few bodies that lay around her. They gave each one a swift kick to the side or head before they were heaved over the gunwale into the water. Glancing to her left, she was just in time to see the battered and bloodied face of Captain Avery before it disappeared over the helm. Her stomach clenched in fear.
Beside her were a few other crew - Smith the chef and the young lads they had just collected in port. They looked at each other: the boys were shaking a little, their eyes wide and glassy. Smith's face was fixed in a firm grimace. Breath shaking, she looked back towards their attackers.
"Captain on deck!" came a cry from behind them.
Emma straightened up. Praying her hat was still pulled down, curving her shoulders to hide her bound chest. She didn't know how, or if, she was going to survive this, but the thought of them discovering she was a woman filled her with dread. She had heard what happened to women in the hands of pirates. It was a fate worse than death.
She dipped her head, eyes focusing on a discarded dagger that lay in a bubbling pool of watery blood. Heavy footsteps rounded the small group.
Her heart was hammering against her chest now. She clenched her fists until the crescents of her nails pinched each palm.
"On your feet for the Captain!"
Suddenly she felt harsh fingers digging into her shoulder and pulling her roughly to stand.
To her right she heard Smith swear and hiss before he spat a large glob of spittle on the deck.
"Mind your mouth!" called the same voice - she looked up and saw it belonged to a tall, thin man - a patch over his eye and a red bandana around his head.
"Make me," sneered Smith.
Emma wanted to quiet him, tell him to back down. Instead he stepped forward and the next thing she knew a sword was being drawn by the pirate, quickly piercing his stomach until he curled over into a ball as the blade withdrew. Blood began to seep across the deck, mingling with that which was already there and Smith moaned in agony. Emma froze.
"Well that was unfortunate," came another voice, silky and deep.
It belonged to the owner of the heavy footsteps from a moment ago. Emma's gaze trailed across the deck towards its source.
Black boots. A heavy leather coat that reached past his ankles. At the end of both sleeves, each cuff was edged in heavy brocade. She caught her breath when she saw his left hand ended in a gleaming, silver hook.
She had heard of this pirate. HIs reputation reached even to the Enchanted Forest and her kingdom - even though he and his ship had never been sighted in their waters. He was famous for giving no quarter to those he captured. The pirate with one hand - Captain Hook.
"Well, what do we have here?" he laughed, his eyes dancing over the three figures. Emma tried to step in front of them - shield them from his gaze with her body.
None of the three replied.
"Well, speak up boys!"
The smaller of the two boys was shaking, small tears running down his cheek. "Please sir, captain, please don't kill me. Please." Softly, he began to sob. She hazarded a glance at the pirate captain. His face and hair were dark to match his reputation, but she could have sworn she saw a flicker of something pass over his face - something lighter.
"Well boy, today you may be in luck. It is true that I take no quarter under normal circumstances - releasing my captives is not good for the reputation!"
A deep rumbling laughter arose from his fellow pirates.
"But you see I find myself in need of a couple of deck hands ahead of a long voyage. So which two of you are going to join my crew?"
The three looked at each other, Emma saw her own fear reflected in the boys faces. She knew what they thought, what would happen to the other one…
Her stomach lurched.
"What about the other?" Emma asked, her own voice surprising her with how calm it sounded.
The captain gazed down at her. She met his eyes - they were bluer than the sea. They seemed so out of place within all the dark and leather that enveloped his body.
"What do you think?" he purred, running his tongue along his bottom lip as he spoke.
She felt flat and dull. The two boys were crying harder now.
So that was it. Her freedom had lasted less than six months. There was no choice. She couldn't let harm come to them.
"Take the boys. They are young, they have done no wrong."
A few heavy steps and she felt cool metal under her chin, raising her head.
She looked into his eyes again. Now they were so close. She could see their dark rim of kohl and the deep blue that banded the lighter azure. They were almost hypnotising. Deadly even.
"And who do we have here?"
"Jack," she croaked, "Jack Swan. Deck hand."
"Hmm," he mused, tilting his head and raising his brow. The tip of his hook nicked her neck as he tilted it higher and she felt a cool trickle of blood roll down her throat. "Quite brave for a deck hand."
"Bravery is not reserved for officers, captain," she replied flatly, refusing to break her gaze.
And damn him he smiled. A broad, wicked smile full of pearly white teeth which made her want to pull back in fear.
"So it seems." His eyes flickered over her face and she swallowed slowly. Her heart was beating so heavily in her chest she was sure he must be able to hear it. His lips curved into a half smile and he raised a brow. It was almost as if he were mocking her.
But then the mask of amusement dropped and she saw a sliver of something else - something true and real beneath the pirate's gaze. Her brow furrowed as a moment passed in silent observation.
Then, with a small laugh he dropped her chin and walked away, pausing at the bow for a few seconds before he twisted on his heel.
"Change of plan. The boys will do as deck hands. But you - I think I want you as my cabin boy. Can you clean?"
She nodded briefly.
She nodded again.
"Good," he smiled.
With no further words he walked away and Emma's knees collapsed beneath her. The two boys clung to her arms as their sobs became more muted.
She watched him walk away, sinking slowly back to her knees, the throb in her head returning and blocking out all thoughts and worries.
She had survived. For now.
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