“You are teaching John Silver to survive this war.”
Flint blinks up at Madi from where he’s seated, surrounded by his men with the bonfire roaring nearby.
The sun is dipping low on the horizon and the mosquitos are beginning to buzz at their ankles. It’s pleasant now with the reprieve from the day’s sticky heat and the shore breeze softly lashing inland. The men are in good spirits as they talk and drink and eat together.
“I am,” Flint confirms.
Madi’s mouth is a hard line, and her head is held high. Flint will admit he’s unsure about where this might be going. She’s been consistently difficult to read in this last month of shared quarters at the Maroon Camp. Flint would swear she is intent on exiling them from her island at the slightest inconvenience in one moment, only to be reassured of her intense support for their cause in the next.
Today, and with this comment in particular, she’s only left him more uncertain.
“We need him to survive this, and I believe teaching him proper swordsmanship is necessary for achieving that end.”
It’s not as if he’s made it a secret. Madi, along with the others, have seen him leaving with John Silver for the rocky hills cradling the beach nearly every day for the last two weeks. When Silver returns with bruises and dragging steps that prove his muscles are beyond exhausted, she knows they’re sparring. She must know.
“It would seem he is the least expendable among us,” she states, crossing her arms at her chest.
Flint narrows his eyes at her because this is possibly the longest conversation the two of them have had outside of council meetings, and he is still unsure of her intentions.
“I care about him surviving this, yes, but that does not mean others are more expendable. You are certainly not expendable,” Flint clarifies.
“Then you will also teach me,” she says finally, as if any fool would draw the same conclusion.
“I do not think that will be necessary,” Flint says, words rolling off his tongue automatically.
She is far too stubborn to accept his refusal at face value. “Why?”
Flint leans back and carefully places the mug he’s drinking from down on the table in front of him. This time, he considers his next words before he speaks. It’s not as if he thinks she cannot handle it. It’s not that at all. Her leadership is just needed in a different capacity.
“You will not be placed in a position where skill with a sword will be necessary for your survival. When we take Nassau, you will be protected.”
“When I can protect myself, I will not need yours,” she reasons. “Would it not benefit us all if I am a lessened burden to you and to John? There are a great many things to worry over and I am not comfortable counting myself amongst those things.” This time she doesn’t wait for him to refuse. “I will meet you at sunrise near the gardens behind the storehouse. It’s wide and open and I think it will make a better place than the beach as we begin.”
Flint tries to voice his protest, but Madi raises a hand to silence him. “Tomorrow,” she says, and turns on her heel, leaving him to watch her retreat to the far side of the bonfire and wonder why she is so impossible to refuse.
Silver sits down next to him a few minutes later, pushing the grumbling Walrus men down the bench so he can wedge himself in close. He sets two plates of food down on the long table, one in front of each of them.
“Fuck, I’m starving,” he says by way of greeting. One chicken leg is already half eaten before he sits down. “A side effect of sparring seems to be an increased appetite, but I’m also not complaining because— well, look at this.” He nods toward his piled plate of food. Warm vegetables and potatoes and some kind of tomato sauce, likely very spicy, and chicken grilled over an open flame. Flint’s plate is identical, and he nods his agreement, sampling the vegetables first.
The Maroons have been far more accommodating than Flint had predicted. Madi had explained it as part of their culture to always share everything they have with those surrounding them, and John had failed miserably at explaining why they might assume otherwise, according to their own culture, as it were.
“Most days I think we should just say, fuck the war and live out our lives upon this forsaken paradise of an island.” Silver waves the chicken leg around him for emphasis. “What else do we need, really? Good company, beautiful women, no shortage of food, shelter from any immediate danger, and— beautiful women,” Silver repeats, softer the second time as he’s distracted by Madi’s movements across the bonfire from where she is eating and chatting with her mother and brothers. She glances their way, and Silver smiles back at her.
“About that,” Flint says, choosing to distract himself with his own food so he isn’t tempted to roll his eyes at Silver’s simpering expression.
“Okay,” Silver draws out when Flint doesn’t immediately continue. “I think it’s safe to assume you aren’t interested in my beautiful women point of discussion.”
“Don’t be a shit,” Flint growls under his breath, but his words are lacking the usual grit. Fortunately for Silver, it’s been a long and tiresome day. “One woman," Flint clarifies, gesturing across the bonfire. "The woman. Madi.”
Silver instantly looks as though he’s been caught doing something he shouldn’t and is trying to be casual about it. It’s fairly common knowledge there’s something going on between him and the princess, maybe physical, maybe not, and Flint is mildly offended that Silver would think him oblivious to such gossip. He might do his best to give them some semblance of privacy, but that doesn’t mean he is unaware.
“Yeah, it’s just a thing,” John rushes on. “I don’t know yet. We’re not— Wait, are we talking about you and Madi?”
Flint gives John a look that he hopes conveys pure contempt. Turning the table knife over in his hand, he seriously contemplates violence if it will put an end to this awful conversation.
Silver, who has no idea when to stop, continues on, “If there’s something between the two of you I should know about then—”
Flint leans back and looks skyward, shaking his head. “For fuck’s sake, please stop talking.”
“Well, say the fuck what you intend to say then,” Silver says raising his voice just enough that the men nearest to them take notice.
Flint leans in close so the others won’t hear him. “She wants me to teach her how to use a blade.”
“Oh,” Silver says, relieved but also maybe a little disappointed. “Well, that’s perfect really, because if you do her first, then you’ll have less energy for me after, and then maybe my body won’t be so goddamned bruised and sore all the time.”
Dooley, who’s sitting opposite them, raises his eyebrows from across the table, food frozen mid-bite with his mouth gaping.
“Fuck off, Dooley,” Silver dismisses him around a mouth full of potato, clearly annoyed by Dooley’s casual eavesdropping while lacking context.
Dooley drops his own chicken to his plate and raises his greasy hands in defense. “I heard nothing. I swear it.”
Normally Flint would be angry as well, but tonight he’s finding Silver’s good mood infectious. It’s swaying his own toward neutrality, and privately he’ll admit it’s refreshing to be so relaxed.
Flint raises his chin toward the end of the table, gesturing for Dooley to move on. Dooley mumbles about kinky shit in exchange for favoritism and stands to leave them, cradling his half eaten plate of food close like someone might reach out and steal it.
“You think I should teach her?” Flint asks seriously.
Silver licks the sauce dripping over his knuckles and shrugs. “Well, I imagine she will not be easy to refuse, and it can only help, right?”
The next day, Flint dresses and leaves his hut before sunrise.
He crosses the square where they sat at the bonfire last night, and rounds a cluster of huts that lead to the storeroom. Behind it are the cultivated fields where Madi requested they meet. He arrives just as the stars are fading into the soft amber light of morning and the camp is stirring awake, ready for another day of repairs and plans.
Madi’s there already, waiting for him just as she said she would.
‘You came,” she states. “I thought about waking you, but then I decided to see if you would honor your word.”
“I still haven’t agreed to this,” Flint reminds her, but he’s already removing his pistols. He brought two. Checking the powder first, he rests them near the wall of the storeroom. Then, he unbuckles the holster and gently places it next to the pistols. The cutlass is next, and he removes that too and sticks the blade into the sandy ground. The sword belt is last. These tasks come so naturally to him that he does it all without much attention. His eyes remain on Madi as she tracks his movements, cataloging the various parts and details. He doesn’t usually wear it all around the camp, at least not lately, but he thought it best to bring everything today, just to gauge her familiarity.
Madi has a sword in her own hands. It looks Spanish in origin, old, and of some value. The cascading gold details adorning the guard and grip are a little ostentatious for Flint's taste, but he imagines Silver would like its aesthetic.
She holds the sword up, mirroring what she believes is proper position, and Flint knows it’s too heavy for her by the way she’s handling it. He wonders where she acquired this sword. He’s not opposed to teaching her how to use it, but he thinks maybe there are simpler things she might benefit from learning first. It’s unlikely a sword will keep her alive in this war but teaching her defensive skills might.
“I would prefer not to injure you,” Flint says casually, easing his jacket off his shoulders and folding it neatly. “Since I can assume any harm done to you will have fairly severe consequences for me.”
“You will not injure me,” she says confidently, lifting her chin high.
First, he will need to see how adept she is already. It’s possible she knows more than he anticipates.
“Are you ready?” he asks, rolling the sleeves of his shirt up to his elbows. She looks at him with confusion at first, still holding the heavy sword up while he holds nothing.
Then she nods once, and Flint advances on her quickly, wanting to recreate a scenario that feels as close to reality as possible.
She swings the sword once, and Flint steps back before knocking it away easily. She eyes it shining on the ground and hesitates, leaving an opening for him to seize her around the waist and lift her. She gives a good kick to his knees, and he grunts at the impact, but he holds firmly until he has a hand at her throat and he’s able to haul her backwards.
For someone so confident, it surprises Flint how easily she gives in.
“A man is more likely to take you by force in this way than to engage you in a sword duel,” he says close to her ear.
Once he lets her free, she stumbles away from him, breathing hard with the effort. That was not what she had expected.
“Within those few seconds, I knew the exact moment you became afraid of me. You hesitated then and I used my strength to dominate you,” Flint tells her honestly, keeping his tone even so she knows he’s only stating facts, not condescending her.
“Teach me,” she demands, dusting her hands on her skirt and standing tall again, quickly regaining her composure.
Flint thinks for a moment about what's most important for her to internalize. The most obvious is probably worth mentioning, especially to someone so determined to learn. “The first lesson is this: If you can, run.”
She frowns at him. Obviously, she was not expecting that either. “You do not run. John will not run.”
Flint grins at her, because he sometimes forgets she’s only known Silver for a short time. Before, Silver would have most certainly run from this war as a first choice, but it’s likely Madi will never know that man.
“When the odds are against me, I know when to call for retreat,” Flint explains. “Sometimes that does involve running. The men who will want to do you harm will be soldiers or pirates or both, men far stronger and more experienced than you. Men exactly like me. Engage only when you cannot run. Promise me this or we will not continue.”
She huffs but finally nods, conceding the point.
“Pride has no place alongside survival,” Flint assures her. “John will agree with me on that point. Come here.”
Madi stays still.
Flint goes on, “You will need to understand your fear first. I am going to take you by force again, but I won’t tell you when. Do not resist me. I want you to feel how I can overpower you with my strength and experience, two things you will never match me in a fight. Knowing that feeling instinctively will help you to overcome it in a real moment of danger.”
Madi nods. Without direction, she closes her eyes and her breathing increases with anticipation.
When Flint grabs her a second time she does not cry out, but she is still fearful when he bears down on her harder this time, lifting her off the ground with her arms pinned to her sides. There’s a fine line between injury and practice, but she doesn’t complain when he releases her, and she stumbles backward, falling to her knees.
“Are you alright?” he asks, just to be sure.
“Fine,” she grinds out, standing up again. “Do not treat me differently than you would John.”
Flint has not known her long, but it doesn’t take much to understand the perfectionist side of her nature. It’s apparent in how she approaches people and in how she solves problems. It will be difficult for her to be inherently disadvantaged here because it goes against everything she has been taught to believe about herself. With practice she will improve though, and Flint can already see she will be a better student than Silver. While Silver is a quick study, he does his fair share of complaining and negotiating, sometimes at the expense of progress.
“If you were to wound me, which places would be most painful?”
She smiles, finally relaxing a little. “I’m unsure,” she lies. “Shall I demonstrate?” she asks, coming toward him.
“I would prefer you use words,” Flint grins, but takes a few steps back, turning to the side to protect himself, just incase she decides to demonstrate anyway.
“Groin,” she says finally. “And your eyes. Well, anywhere on your face will be painful, I imagine.”
Flint nods. “Yes, my advice would be to go for the groin first. I would go for the eyes, nose, or throat as a secondary choice.” He makes a claw with his hand and demonstrates on his own face. “Like this,” he says. “Throwing a decent punch will also get you pretty far. I’ll teach you that as well.”
Madi nods, eager to learn.
“Most importantly, whatever you choose to do in the moment, do not hesitate. That’s the key to all of this. Blade or no blade, you must commit without fear. Or learn to hide your fear well enough.”
“I understand.” She’s watching him, trying to predict his next move.
Flint thinks of common ways a man might reach for her. He advances, taking her by the wrist and pulling her forcefully toward him. “If someone reaches for you like this, what do your instincts tell you to do?”
Madi demonstrates by pulling her arm back toward her own body. “To struggle, to protect myself by gaining control of my arm again.” He keeps eye contact and holds her wrist up until she is still.
“The way I’m holding you will not allow you to escape in that way.” He shows her where the strongest part of his hand lies along his knuckles, and the weakest part of his grip, where the tips of his fingers meet his thumb. She listens intently. “Make a fist and cover it with your free hand. Twist your body while pulling down. That will break one’s hold at the weakest point, even with someone much stronger than you.”
He shows her a few times slowly, and then they practice it together.
Sometime later, Silver appears. He sits quietly for a while with his back to the storeroom under the building’s shade, squinting against the sun as he watches them. The crutch lies near him, and the iron leg is absent. His hair is secured high on his head and sweat dots his hairline already.
He doesn’t look in any hurry to begin his own training for the day, so Flint continues with Madi for awhile.
After helping Madi up from where she’s stumbled, Flint takes a handful of sand and hurls it at Silver who appears to be deep in thought, or nearly asleep, it’s hard to tell.
In surprise, Silver ducks and protects his eyes.
Smiling down at him, Flint wipes the sweat from his forehead with the sleeve of his shirt. “Get up. You’re late, and you cannot go soft on me now.”
Silver responds with, “Fuck you, too. I’m quite enjoying my morning off,” but he's smiling, too.
Madi is panting from exertion, and she takes the intermission to sit down near Silver under the shade. Silver brought a canteen of water with him, and she reaches for it without asking, gulping the water down. Silver watches her closely, waiting for her thoughts without wanting to ask.
“I think we can continue tomorrow,” Madi decides, leaning forward on her knees to clean the dirt from her hands with more of the water. She gives the water back to Silver, and he is not shy in brushing his fingers over hers. She lowers her eyes and smiles softly. “I have other matters to attend to this day, and my mother will be waiting to begin.”
They both watch her stand, dust off her skirts and leave them, perfectly aware of how her body moves as she walks away.
When she’s out of earshot, Silver says, “I like watching you and her together. I’m not really sure what that means, but well—”
“That’s really more than I needed to know,” Flint murmurs, taking a long swallow of the water, careful to avoid other thoughts.
Silver’s smile is wide and unashamed. “No, I think what I mean is, it’s like worlds colliding, you and her. You’re so very similar in many ways. I don’t think either of you see it yet, but you’re edging closer to understanding it, and that’s fascinating to me.”
Once he’s given it some thought, Flint understands the comparison. They share idealism, seeing the world for its potential and often unaccepting of its reality. It makes them good visionary leaders, but flawed ones at the same time. Both need the pragmatism of someone like Silver to ground them, to provide balance.
They also share a fondness for Silver and a belief in his potential, even if he doesn’t quite see it in himself yet.
They differ in other ways, though, certainly in their experiences, and in the ways in which they became leaders. Where she inherited her throne and has always known her role, Flint fell into his out of necessity and circumstance, just as Silver did. Flint never wishes to share the burden of his own experiences with her either. The darkest depths of grief and sorrow, the consuming vengeance sought for wrongs done to him a lifetime ago, Flint would never wish that special circle of hell upon anyone.
“She doesn’t trust me,” Flint says, picking up her abandoned sword, transferring it from one hand to the other to test the weight. “The war we’re igniting has appeal for her, but I’m not convinced she is fully invested yet.” The sword is absolutely too heavy for Madi. He’ll need to find a more suitable one for her to use while they practice.
“Maybe not today, but she will trust you.” Silver smiles softly, using the crutch to help him to his feet. He leans against it, and Flint stops, frozen once he catches the sudden tinge of sorrow behind Silver’s eyes. The facade he’s so carefully constructed for himself falls away, giving Flint just a glimpse of the man beneath it. Flint wants to know this man more than anything, and so he stays still and pays attention.
“And when she does trust you, I fear the two of you will finally realize how unremarkable I really am.”
John Silver still believes he doesn’t matter here, that they can do all of this without him.
Flint turns Madi’s sword over, carefully flipping it to handle the blade, and offers it to Silver. Silver frowns at first, but then takes it firmly by the grip. It will suit him just fine.
“While she and I may find common understanding, I think it is very unlikely we will feel differently about you.” There can be trust between them and still room enough for Silver.
Flint meets Silver’s eyes and tries his best to convey this with sincerity. “I cannot do this without you. Madi cannot do this without you. We will take Nassau, and we will take what is beyond that as well, but only once you believe it is possible.”
Silver takes a deep breath and looks down at the Spanish sword, turning it over until it catches the sunlight, brightening the worry still creasing his face.
“And why is that?” Silver asks. “How have I become the one who matters here?” Flint almost reminds Silver how he insinuated himself into Flint's life not so long ago, but he thinks this might be a bit different, more personal and less about using one's wit to survive through the day. It's also likely rhetorical, a question for the heavens and one that neither of them will be able to answer with clarity yet, not without Flint analyzing more of himself than he’s quite comfortable with at the moment, so he leaves it open. They still have time to figure it out, after all.
“Come on,” Flint beckons instead of answering, pulling his cutlass from the sand with ease. The metal grip is warm from the mid-morning heat and the weight of it is familiar. “We have work to do.”