There had come a time when he had run out of places to wash the blood from his hands, and it was long ago.
The waves were cool as they rose up to caress large hands, as if in reverent offering, drawing out the crimson stains to reveal their natural alabaster hue. They remained submerged, fingers working unhurriedly until no trace was left, before he stood tall on the rock where he perched with a hunter’s grace. It was nigh impossible to not take in the sea with every breath, not that he minded, though he had always preferred the aromas of the dark forests; moss and mud, rain and blood.
No stars were out that night but, behind the veil of dark clouds, he could spy the faintest whispers of moonlight that dared defy him. His dripping fists clenched.
A low rumble of thunder, like the growl of some great monster, like him, rippled low across the sky and when he next looked up, his eyes were only met with darkness. The quirk of his lips was a crack in the icy exterior of his features.
They would be hiding away, all of them – just as they should – curled up in their huts and cots and treehouses, quivering for fear that he may descend to quell his fury on their breakable bodies. It had happened too many times.
Time, his greatest adversary, was moving against him.
Drying his hands with a fleeting thought, he reached into the pocket of his tunic for one of the two rolls of parchment that had sat against his heart for longer than he could recall. One was far older. His fingers were careful as he unravelled it, staring down with rising irascibility. It looked like her, under the right gaze, though she had carried the wrong name, and the wrong blood, which now drifted out into nowhere. He’d been a fool to ignore that, hoping for the chance that the name had become lost to history, while he remained untouched. However, since her arrival, an ever growing part of him had wished for her failure, the relief upon which was undeniable. He’d been all too happy for what came next.
So many screams for one without a tongue.
Nonetheless, the board would be set again in wait for a new pawn – one worthy of the mantle that had fooled everyone but him; one worthy of a place among his possessions – to present themselves, and he would be ready and waiting.
For, after all, Peter Pan never failed.
The docks were always busy in the early mornings, waking and working before much of the rest of the town.
Ships passed in and out of the harbour, setting out on trade missions, voyages and fishing trips, or bringing in supplies for merchants to get their hands on to sell for a fat profit, sailors roused before the dawn. Sometimes the lanterns had barely burned out after a night’s vigil when the docks became lined with people, swimming and scattering like the fish that swam, oblivious to the bustle, in the harbour. That was where she could be found.
A beggar girl, small and underfed, would sit mutely and pitifully offer her tattered little bowl to passers-by, when she had the strength to. She’d lost count of how many days she’d huddled in the same spot during the days, the information irrelevant to her, dark eyes pleading by nature and searching for a kind-looking face. There were better places to beg, she knew in her absent mind, and it were not as though she had any possessions, save the bowl and clothes on her back, to carry, yet she found she did not wish to leave the harbour. More often than not, she blamed it on the exhaustion that was dragged in on the back of hunger.
It was particular chilly that morning so she wrapped her thin, worn shawl around her shoulders, still shivering in spite of her attempts. It rose in her memory that the bakery or the local forge had always emitted a little warmth. Still, she didn’t move. Besides, the baker or the blacksmith would have probably chased her away. Not that she would blame them.
Having so often forgotten, she wondered, again, if it was worth trying to clean herself up as best she could and offer her labour to the local manor, or an inn or a farm, earn some coin, protected by an informal contract that put a roof over her head and food in her belly. Something always stopped her.
The pit in her gut would open up wider, bleeding out a sickening dread, a searing…guilt, embarrassment? She was not sure. There was always a piece of the puzzle missing, as though her deeper mind was keeping something back from her, locked away beyond reach. But what use was it? It didn’t put money in her hand.
Her disjointed mind then led her down a path she’d also wandered down many a time; the world was clearly not going to care for her, why should she care for it? There were plenty of people whom she doubted would miss a small purse, a trinket or two. Again, something stopped her. Made it impossible.
Someone dropped a penny into her empty bowl; she didn’t see their face as they scurried away. “Thank you,” she whispered dryly but earnestly. The clatter of a coin made her dormant heart stir.
Food might have to wait, she thought, and tried to ignore the response of her empty belly.
A new shawl or coat would be of more use to her now that summer was over. Doing her best to block out the gnawing hunger, the girl began to look out for boats sailing in that may have been carrying cargo for trade, perhaps she could barter a deal, take the scraps, and hope someone might take pity on a peculiar street rat. Usually, the girl kept her bowl fairly close to her knees when it had money in already with a pointless paranoia, but now she held it a little further up like an offering. Hopefully the strain in her arms would be worth it. Trepidation kept her noiseless. She learned to speak in other ways.
It was some time later, dragged out by the chill and hunger, and a small boy scampered through the crowds and put a couple of coins in her bowl, perhaps sent by a charitable elder. Finding a rare smile that made her mouth feel strange, the girl brought the bowl back towards her chest protectively. “Thank you.”
The boy smiled innocently back at her and dashed away, moving effortlessly through the currents of sailors and merchants. The air was a little warmer yet her hands were still reddened and trembling, and the bowl felt like ice against her grimy skin. When did I last wash? She couldn’t remember, but couldn’t think too far back. Where would I find warm water, anyway?
A ship sailing in then caught her eye; her gaze fixed on it as it docked and the sailors began to unload large crates and sacks. Placing her bowl on the floor, knowing it would never be worth stealing and not really caring for it anyway, she collected the coins into her little hand and got to her feet. Her joints were stiff and aching, gait shaky as she stumbled through the slightly thinning crowds. So fixed on the ship ahead of her, she forgot to step aside for the figure approaching, having also just docked, ebony-haired and clad darkly from head to toe.
His shoulder barged into her, knocking that frail body down to the ground like a stack of cards with a grunt that was the air being knocked out of her chest. “Watch your step, lass,” he barked at her before properly regarding her, pivoting on his soles.
Guilt and heat washed over her as she peeped up at him, grateful for the filthy sweep of hair covering nearly half her features. “Sorry,” she muttered, avoiding his eye as quickly as possible, diverging her gaze to his attire. A long coat, crafted in black leather, hung from his strong shoulders to his mid-calf, met by black boots that concealed the lower part of his trousers, black leather also, a little scuffed with more than frequent use but still clung to a hint of shine. Perhaps they’d been polished not long ago. The waistcoat beneath was easy to catch the eye, a bold bloody red, intricately detailed, lined with silver, here and there.
“What you got in your hand there?” he asked sharply, voice jolting her, pale lapis eyes scouring over her feeble form, settling on her hand that was clenched like a vice. She couldn’t remember when someone had last spoken to her properly.
Impatient, the dark sailor extended his left hand, except it wasn’t a hand. Secured to his wrist like a piece of machinery was a silver hook that could slice flesh better than the finest blades. The sight of it alone proved sufficient. Her eyes flickered uneasily between the gleaming instrument and her tightly curled fist once or twice before slowly opening it to reveal the few measly coins.
“Steal those, did you, lass?”
The girl shook her head vigorously, making no move to get up, like she’d forgotten she’d fallen in the first place. Her fingers re-closed around the coins defensively, hand withdrawn to her chest, knuckles whitening against the cold red flush of her skin. The dark man examined her carefully; she could have easily been a thief, using her harmless appearance to get away with little crimes. He’d never seen startled rabbit eyes so convincing. Almost too convincing. But no thief would be so poorly kept. Seldom had he seen a sight more pitiful than the one before him then.
“N-No, sir,” the beggar finally squeaked.
Smirking, he folded his arms. “Sir? How quaint,” He flashed his teeth in a chuckle. “Do you know how I am?”
Her answer was another shake of the head, lips unmoving. Except for a small chilly tremble.
He reached down and hauled her up, bones brittle and bird-like under his one handed grip. A thief would have been better fed as well, he remarked to himself. With the way she moved he could tell she was little more than skin and bones under those baggy rags she passed off as clothes.
“That won’t buy you anything,” he told her, and watched as her dull eyes fell.
“I want a shawl. I’m cold,” the girl said unevenly, as if unaccustomed to saying more than two words at a time.
He looked over her again, unable to supress the pang of warmth that plucked at his frayed heartstrings, and unable to sense anything malign in the sorry soul before him. With winter coming, she probably wouldn’t last long. Swiftly, he cast his eyes over to his ship; they would be ready to set sail again in a little time.
“Do you have a name, scavenger?” he asked after a moment’s deliberation.
She shook her head. “Call me what you like,” she shrugged indifferently.
In all honestly, the girl often had no memory of the names she’d once been called by, only that there had been more than one. No one used them, no one had in a long time. She was a nameless, faceless beggar, who had no need of a name. When she could recall them, she realised they were her only true possession and she wouldn’t give it away to just anyone. Couldn’t. Not that they would save her.
Few knew the names she’d gone by in earlier years, fewer were still alive, even fewer – mayhaps no one – knew the true name from which they came.
The dark sailor unfolded his arms, the metal instrument at the end of his wrist glinting in the morning sun, glancing over at his treasured vessel again. “I could use an extra pair of hands aboard my ship. You’d be given food, shelter, clothes. And a bath. What do you say, scavenger?”
Lips parted in shock, she simply stared at him, dumbfounded.
“Well?” he prompted irritably after a few moments of silence. “You can come with me or stay here and freeze to death.”
“Is this a trick…? You mean it?”
“Aye, better to put a life to work than to waste. I doubt you have anything to stay for.”
Not anymore, a voice in her mind said solemnly, coming from somewhere deeper, dark. “No,” she answered. “I-I won’t be any trouble.”
“I would hope not. Come along then, scavenger,” he turned and set off with a brisk stride towards his ship, coat flapping around his lower legs.
It took a moment to sink in; she shook her head sharply to make sure it wasn’t some wishful illusion, a hallucination brought on by hunger or exhaustion. It wouldn’t be the first time. But then, realising it was all very much real, she took off on coltish legs after her unlikely saviour.
She immediately felt far too dirty as she stepped on board, knowing she didn’t belong. The crew were rough looking, not formal and tidy like the regular sailors and captains she’d seen in her time yet they carried themselves with experience, a discipline. Her heart quickened, pounding her chest like a begging plea, or a warning, when a number of the crew cast their eyes on her; she lowered her head, feeling her palms grow sweaty.
“Change of plan. This is Venger, our new cabin boy. I’m told he’s rather a diamond in the rough,” her rescuer announced to the crew on the deck. “Smee, find some clothes, and the shears.” The girl felt a lift in her features in spite of herself, liking the new name. Venger, she could see that suiting her quite well. He turned to her, a wily grin across his face. “Welcome aboard the Jolly Roger.”
“So, they think I’m a boy?” Venger ventured with a meek tone, clarifying.
“It’s impossible to tell under those clothes and I’ve seen enough boys with faces like yours. Besides, tongues tend not to wag on my ship. A scavenger can hardly afford a barber anyway,” her new captain told her, gathering all the hair around her back. His pirate title had hardly surprised her – Captain Hook. She should have guessed.
Her excuse for hair was knotted and matted beyond measure, filled with dirt and dust, and blood, crawling down her shoulder blades to her mid back. She couldn’t help but flinch as he began hacking it off with the shears Smee, his first mate, had brought him. It fell to the floor in clumps, leaving her whole skull feeling much lighter. The captain stopped cutting when the remains of her rats-nest was at level with her little elfin ears, noting the tenseness in her shoulders but saying nothing; he suspected she had been without companionship for some time. He then eased the girl backwards until the back of her head was submerged in the large washing bowl. Warm water rippled against her ears, teasing the edges of her hairline. A little contented hum passed over her lips as she closed her eyes. He worked through her shortened locks with an oiled hand, the sharp point of his hook proving rather useful, pulling through the remaining knots and then coated it with a sweet-smelling ointment until he could pull his fingers through with neither effort nor strain.
“Thank you, sir,” Venger whispered, sitting up.
“Just call me Captain, or Hook, whichever you rather,” he ruffled her hair with a towel before taking a strip of dark blue silk that had once been his and put her hair into a ponytail, tying it rather adeptly into a bow, leaving the shortest locks loose around her face. He left the towel hanging over her shoulders. “You’re a boy now, I don’t want any slip ups; you’ll be safer as a lad. And you are to refer to me as ‘Captain’ at all times on duty. Now run yourself a bath – those pots are warming over there – and then put those on,” he gestured to a set of clothes slung over the back of another chair, again left dutifully by Smee.
Venger nodded obediently, waiting until the captain left the cabin to get up and lock the door behind him. There were enough pots to fill the small tub adequately deep. It was such a relief to shed the rags that hung off her body. The water was a little hot to start with but blissful all the same as she sunk into the tub. She couldn’t believe that she’d forgotten what warmth felt like, of all things.
She scrubbed herself clean, turning the water murky within minutes, greatly to her shame. It had been easy to forget how truly pale her skin was without all those layers of grime on top, yet that was likely what had kept it so.
The clothes left for her were befitting of any cabin boy. The tunic was white, loose with ruffled sleeves and concealed her mild feminine shape, while the trousers were black as night and came with a belt which she tied at the hips to keep the dips of her waist hidden. The boots left for her were a little big but their height on her calves prevented them from slipping, and finally she pulled on the dark brown waist-coat, leaving it undone. Satisfied and in better comfort than she been in over a year, Venger climbed up to the deck, and quickly caught sight of her new captain.
“I suppose that’ll do,” Hook said dismissively, looking her up and down as she approached with a demure gait.
They stood side by side, looking out over the prow of the Jolly Roger, with the whistling air in their faces, carrying in the scent of salt. Venger couldn’t help that same lightness taking hold in her face. The water glittered like a thousand sapphires under the sun, reaching out as far as the eye could see. This was the sight of freedom, she knew it to the bone.
Venger only wished to ask of her new life, all too keen to set sail and never look back, caring not if it meant rising early, scrubbing floors, washing clothes and seeing the same faces day after day. Anything was better than what she had; a wretched existence, and she knew with certainty she would never regret the choice to leave it behind.
There wasn’t anything left for her, nothing to hold onto, no ties to cut. A new life on a pirate ship would keep her busy, make her tired for the night, and maybe she would no longer be trapped to a constant circle of knowing there was something she couldn’t remember, trying to work her way back, and her thoughts collapsing in on themselves, the deeper parts of her being locked away, forbidden.
“How old are you then, boy?” Hook asked, knowing some of his crew would be able to overhear.
“Nineteen, I think,” Venger replied. “I don’t really remember.”
“I had you for younger. Why don’t you remember?”
Light azure was met with a sorrowful, depthless gaze of dark hazel-brown. “I don’t remember a lot of things.”
The girl wondered if he was thinking of asking her about the story that came along with her, for there must have been one, but could understand how one’s sorrows were their own. In little slips, or in the dead of night, she would remember something, and for a second become someone fuller, with more pieces put together.
A silent weight bore down on his shoulders as it did on hers, she could sense that kind of burden. Perhaps that was why he chose to save me.
Her shortened hair was almost dry now and pleasantly light and feathery, tickling her cheeks and back of her neck. Its true colour, a light auburn, hued with gold and copper, revealed itself proudly and was pretty against the rich blue of the ribbon.
Every now and then, sparkling sea water would be sprinkled over her face by the ship bowing and gliding through the navy waves that stretched out all the way to the bright horizon. Taking a deep breath, she sought out the courage to speak again. “Where is it we’re going?”
The Captain scoured the ship, providing a moment before answering, and looking to her.