Flint would not surrender gently.
Once, Silver and Flint had climbed another slope together. Then, to Silver’s puzzlement and reluctant gratitude – if he was honest with himself, more than gratitude, as it had been the beginning of the conflicted friendship that was at the root of the present masquerade – Flint had worried about Silver’s well-being. He had enquired about his discomfort, worried about his stamina, encouraged him, supported him, caught him when he had fallen. Now, he kept apart. Silver could still read some sympathy in the looks Flint was sending him: strange flashes of solicitude, in a face so ravaged by his inner turmoil that it moved like waves crashing on a shore.
The dam had finally broken, Flint’s impenetrable façade unable to hold in his conflicted rage at finding a friendship reduced to ashes – what did he think Silver still owed him, after gambling so callously with Madi’s life? It was scary to witness, his convulsing face, the rolling hills of his creased forehead, the despair and the anger, and worse of all the short bouts of calm when Flint managed to draw the mask back on his features. That meant he was not yet overwhelmed: although exhausted, cornered and aware of how alone he was, he wasn’t lashing out, nor giving in to the mounting wave of madness: he was plotting. Counting his allies, looking for a way out.
Silver should have acted earlier. Flint had already been retiring into himself as they were rowed to the shore, the distance between him and every other growing solid and cold, not a Captain with his crew anymore but one last fighter among his enemies. Silver had felt himself following suit, detaching from the group and calculating. Israel Hands, he couldn’t be more certain of where he stood: the man hated Flint, hated everyone and everything and especially any grand talk of freedom coming between him and his pleasures, even more between him and a treasure. Tom Morgan was a pirate through and through, a former captain come to the Walrus’s crew by the power of Silver greasing his pockets and greasing them well. Ben Gunn hated the maroons, plain and simple, and would want to see the alliance end. Two others had been Hornigold’s men, not long in the clutches of Flint’s power, that Jack Rackham and Silver had chosen for their lack of imagination and weak spark in battle: the kind that wouldn’t feel like rising up for the rants of a madman.
That left Wee Matthew, nearly as tall as Billy and no less strong, a freed slave who’d been with the Walrus long before Silver had materialised there. Silver had wanted him for his dogged persistence in fights, because there had to be someone who could physically master Flint if they ended making a mess of it. Could Flint turn him? Wee Matthew was another of Gates’s lads and Silver had to hope it would be enough.
The damn slope was slippery and steep and the roots like evil tentacles clinging to Silver’s crutch. He was trying not to pant too obviously, but Flint, of course, knew, unable to conceal another of these flashes of concern as he watched. Nonetheless, he didn’t close the gap and certainly didn’t let Silver lean on him.
“We rest here.”
Everyone was aware of what was afoot. No one had truly hoped that Flint would be deceived. Everyone understood their clue to leave. Everyone was glad to leave to Silver the prying of the cache location off Flint. And then his murder.
Silver was reminded of that moment on the Spanish Warship when Flint had explained the subtleties of a successful pirate attack. Here it was the same and he’d become comfortable with it, the approach made easy by how well he’d come to know Flint’s mind. When to raise the black: don’t be too threatening, or he’ll feel cornered and lash out. But make yourself inevitable, so that he doesn’t think he can win. And don’t let yourself be deceived by his tricks.
Flint rose, took in a breath, began slowly, and Silver knew they were in for another speech. Easy to deflect, and who did Flint think Silver was, to try and sway him with such trite rhetoric? England, what did Silver care? And what did Flint care beyond his need for revenge?
And darkness. Silver was so well-acquainted with it now. With its seduction, that yearning for blood and power. With Flint’s discourse on it. Couldn’t he see that it was exactly what Silver was trying to extricate himself from? What he was trying to extricate Flint from?
But then the speech changed. From a call to hate to a proclamation of what to fight for. What to stand for. What to love for. And here, right at the end of time, with nothing left but the abyss under his feet, Flint was opening a door that Silver hadn’t known existed. That made everything harder.
Until then Silver had believed that Captain Flint was just the façade that James McGraw opposed to a world he hated, in order to shed the blood and exert the revenge he so craved. That the war he called for was fought for himself and two other people he thought dead. That his speeches were like Silver’s: manipulation. Deceit. That in his heard resided only despair, not belief. But here was belief. Here was Flint letting Silver into his hopes – of truly finding oneself out of civilisation’s restraints; of building anew where there was room to grow; of a darkness that doesn’t take but protects and nourishes. Of outcasts shining their own light.
Somewhere, at some time, as Flint had linked his fate with so many others, whether pirates, slaves or whores, the past – Thomas, Miranda – had stopped being the sole motivation of his actions. Flint and McGraw had understood each other, even fused together, and it made Silver’s plan less likely to succeed.
For another man than Silver, it might even have made Flint’s war less easy to reject. But he remembered a madman convincing a crew to sail into a ship-killer storm and stood his ground.
“This is not about England,” he said, eager to mould the narrative back into the shape he needed. Let Flint be reminded of his rage and pull on the mantle of the vengeful man again, so that once this vengeance was shown to be useless he could be undone, brought back to the Lieutenant’s persona from before his fall. He concentrated on the ruin that was Flint’s agitated face – on how that darkness that he called for was nonetheless destroying him. He told himself he was saving him, not breaking him.
But Flint resisted – not consciously, because he couldn’t know what Silver knew. But because Silver was attempting to shape him into something that wasn’t the whole of him anymore.
“All of this will be for nothing,” he said, sounding soft and broken. And as he talked about the pirates’ history being smothered under their victors’ tales, Silver realised that not only was there room for belief in Flint’s heart, but also for the people with whom he had tried to turn these beliefs into realities. That Flint truly cared for his crew. His allies. His kin.
Before it had consumed him, Billy had resisted Flint on the grounds that their captain was using the crew as tools. Flint, he’d argued, was not a pirate himself: he was a tyrant. He had pushed that narrative into Silver’s mind; later, Israel Hands had reinforced it; and Silver realised that until now he had believed it, deep down, even when Flint explained his reasons, told him of his past, offered to die for his crew. But this Flint, raw, broken, letting go of the last of his walls, revealing himself as a last defence, was a man Silver could but think true. And with this, any moral high ground he could have retained crumbled down, making Silver the villain.
Then a villain he would be.
This war on the world would only crush them, even fought with the best intentions. Silver had to save Madi, who had sparked a fire in his heart that he hadn’t even known could burn. Had to try to save Flint, who by opening himself to Silver as he was right now was only making Silver’s affection truer.
“I don’t care,” Silver said, and endured what sounded like Flint cursing him to a future of torment.
And when he couldn’t stand to hear more, he pointed his pistol at Flint, hoping he had calculated it right. Began talking without stopping to defuse the violence.
“This is not what I wanted,” he said, knowing it was a menace and not an empty one, making it only more ominous because he knew, truly knew now that he didn’t want to kill this man, this friend. “But I will stand here with you, for an hour, a day, a year. While you find a way to accept this outcome. So we might leave here together. For if not then I must end this another way.”
Flint didn’t sit down. Squinted into the barrel like it was his only future. The disbelieving look on his face slowly morphed into one of resolve, and he closed his fists.
“Let me tell you a story about a plantation,” Silver said, unable to help the rush in his blood as he hurled himself into the kind of action he relished the most. “In Savannah.”
The spasm on Flint’s face was one of anger. Mingled with contempt, perhaps.
“If we meet someone named Solomon Little in this story,” he growled, “I swear, you shit, that I’ll make you eat that pistol if it’s the last thing I do on this earth.”
“No Solomon Little,” Silver said, grinning a little. “But people you know –” was it too early? He thought it was. “Like Max, whom I heard it from.”
This gave him Flint’s attention, if nothing more. But as Silver launched into an evocation of Oglethorpe and his lofty motives, of his plantation and of Society’s outcasts that were left there to be forgotten and redeem themselves with honest work, the curl of Flint’s mouth became only more pronounced, contempt giving way to revulsion.
“Honest, forced work,” Flint spat. “Wayward lords. What did Max have to do with it?”
“She wanted to send me there when she thought she had me caught. With a monetary gift to the owner so that I wouldn’t escape. Said it was more humane than killing.”
“And you’re too much of a coward to kill me now,” Flint seethed. “You think I’ll let you and your ilk drag me there alive? That you have a chance in hell to try and do it without me murdering you all? You goddamn fucking traitor. Humane? Didn’t I earn enough of your respect for a bullet in the head at least? Fuck you, Silver! Will you sleep better at night? You think it’ll help your cause with Madi?” He stopped abruptly, made an aborted, violent movement towards Silver who firmed his grasp on the pistol. Hissed a curse. “You don’t want a martyr.”
Now it wasn’t a question of whether Flint was in a state of mind to hear the truth. Silver had to speak to prevent him to jump and, indeed, turn himself into a martyr.
“I don’t want you dead,” Silver said, lowering the pistol slightly. “You’re a friend. If I wanted to avoid creating a martyr, I could just kill you and tell Madi you’ve let her down and gone away. All our friends here would gladly bear witness.”
“You fucker. You’re taking away all my reasons to live and robbing me of my death?”
Silver took in a large breath. “Reasons to live, you say. Then hear this: Tomas Hamilton is alive. Behind the walls of that plantation.”
Too damn early. He’d known it. Flint’s face contracted into an enraged mask and he threw himself at Silver, uttering a sound that was part anguish, part outrage, and all fury. Silver lifted the pistol in a desperate attempt not to wound Flint, stepped back, fell, his crutch catch in a boggy hole in the ground. The pistol shot, sending the birds cawing and chirping into the sky.
Flint was at his throat, his whole weight on Silver, rolling them both into the mud and the wet grass, pressing onto his windpipe, growling. Moaning – “no,” again and again, and Silver heard what he couldn’t find the words to say – don’t lie about that, don’t use Thomas, don’t make me hope, don’t tell me I’ve burned the whole world to avenge the death of a man who is still there –
“Not a lie,” Silver gasped, and after another long moment of trying to pull some air into his lungs was relieved to feel the pressure on his throat abate.
Flint rolled onto his side, scowled at Silver. His hand was on Silver’s wrist, preventing him from lifting the pistol as a club. Menacing to take it. Silver would bet he had all he needed to reload on his person, and certainly more than one knife.
“You kill me,” Silver said. “You never know the truth. And either the others kill you or you kill them and you’re marooned here. With your fucking treasure, wish you joy of it.”
Flint scowled some more and opened a twisted, pained mouth. Nothing came out.
“How?” Silver supplied. Flint made a menacing face and nodded. “Thomas Hamilton’s relatives with the help of Peter Ashe. I had people looking into which families made use of Oglethorpe’s, ah, facilities. Ashe sent him there some time after the death of Hamilton’s father.”
“Hearsay,” hissed Flint.
“No. I sent Tom Morgan to make sure.”
Flint sat up, shaking his head. “You’re lying,” he said, a tremor in his voice.
Silver sat beside him, feeling the back of his head where it had connected with a stone. For a moment, he’d been dizzy enough to fear he’d faint - then everything would be lost. If Flint left it here without Silver he was dead.
“You’ve been at my side since we took back Nassau,” Flint went on. “Morgan was there too. You’re lying.” He paused, swallowed and turned to Silver with a shocked expression. “Wait. When do you say this happened?”
“Heard about it before right before you saved me from the redcoats,” Silver admitted. This was going to be the hard part. “Sent Morgan there when you were held hostage.”
“And you didn’t tell.”
“I couldn’t!” Silver exclaimed with all the conviction he could muster. “Not then! The likeliest outcome was that you wouldn’t believe me, thinking I was just using Thomas to get you out of the picture –”
“– right when us working together was the most important. When Nassau’s future depended upon us! I’d have lost your trust.”
“Lost your life,” Flint supplied.
“Or I'd have gone away.”
Silver grimaced and nodded.
“Another possible outcome was me believing you,” Flint said.
“And what do you think would have happened then?” Silver spat, unable to hide the bitterness in his voice – and certain, also, that this argument would go straight to Flint’s heart. “You’d have made one of your speech to the crews, found a reason why Hamilton’s imprisonment was a stain on the fight for freedom, diverted our army to swarm Oglethorpe’s plantation. This war would have lost some more of its meaning. Become more of your personal plaything.”
Flint shook his head but said nothing. He was panting and clenching his jaw so tight veins were popping on his blood-crusted temples.
“I wouldn’t have believed it,” he finally whispered, his fists clenching convulsively at his sides, clutching at the fabric of his breeches. “I’d have broken you.”
“So, you see,” Silver said with an apologetic tilt of his head.
Flint remained silent, obviously trying to get his breathing and temper under control. Birds resumed their chirping above. Tom Morgan’s basso voice could be heard, fading in the distance.
“What do you want?” Flint asked.
“You guessed right. We bring you to the plantation. We pay Oglethorpe so that you stay within. You find Hamilton, alive.”
A sound came out of Flint that sounded very much like a gutted sob, followed by a noisy intake of breath.
“I’d have broken you,” Flint repeated through his clenched jaw. “But then you’re right. I couldn’t have lived with myself wondering whether you might have told the truth. I’d have taken the crews and the maroons and gone checking. I’d have broken the war.” His eyes came up, wet and green like an angry sea, bore into Silver’s. “You’re right that it’d have been dangerous to tell me. But if that’s true, which by God I’m not sure I can believe, if Morgan gave you enough proof, what prevented you from sending men, not an army but enough of them, to get Thomas out? Fucking hell, Silver!”
Silver sighed. Here came the moment when Flint’s friendship had to be forsaken for good. Or worse.
“Thomas Hamilton was the ace in my sleeve,” he said. “My only way to stop you, when I decided you crossed the line. Freeing him would have been discarding my last trump card.”
“Crossing the line? When you decided? You? You rotting piece of shit! Thomas Hamilton was a good man! Not a trump, not a tool! And innocent man who suffered more than any of us for alleged crimes of less consequence than the smallest sin of any of us! God, a fucking ace in your sleeve. I don’t believe you! You lying goddamn traitor, I don’t believe you!”
“But you doubt,” Silver said softly, feeling so much pity. “As you just admitted. For Thomas’s sake, will you come down with me?”
Flint shook his head, his face twisting in a scowl. But then the roiling forehead smoothened and his mouth became lax. “Yes,” he said, standing and extending a hand to help Silver up.
“Oh no,” smiled Silver, recoiling on the ground and pushing himself up by his crutch at a safer distance. “I won’t fall twice for this trick. I know you, Captain. Let’s go?”
Something shivered in Flint’s expression, but Silver couldn’t parse it. “Actually”, Flint said. “I have a condition.”
“A condition,” echoed Silver, sighing and easing himself back down. He began to reload his pistol.
“What are you doing?” Flint asked. “I thought I told you I’d come? Why the pistol?”
“I’m hearing your condition. And taking my precautions in case I’m not amenable.”
“You couldn’t shoot me earlier.”
“Now I could. Let’s be honest, Captain,” Silver began, and the same shiver agitated Flint’s features.
“Don’t call me that,” he spat. “I’m not your Captain anymore, am I? My ship burned and you sundered me from my crew.”
“Let’s be honest,” Silver repeated without the honorific. “I see you’re having a hard time hearing me. And if I can’t, I mean really can’t get you back from this goddamn state of mind where you can only conceive your loved ones as dead, then I do believe you’ll be better off with a bullet in your head. No offence, because as you said earlier, you’ve definitely earned enough of my respect to have this wish granted.”
The click of Flint’s throat as he swallowed was audible. As Silver finished loading and brought the pistol to bear, Flint, slowly, with his other arm extended forward palm open, began to pull out the knife at his belt, then offered it to Silver, handle first.
“I’ll follow you down,” he said. “My condition is that we take the time to bury the Walrus’s dead before we leave the island. I don’t want to leave them like that, rotting on the shore.”
“It’s going to take days,” Silver said, a badly-thought answer as his mind was already calculating the chances of Flint turning the tides and winning back the crew if given so much time. Then he looked up, his eye caught by an aborted movement, Flint’s fists clenching hard, the heave of his shoulders. His scowl.
“Before you were their king,” Flint said. “They elected you their quartermaster.”
“I mean,” Silver hastened to add. “Of course. But I’m not taking more men from the Lion on the beach. All right, maybe two. Four. No more. More and it’s either they kill you or you win them over, which I can’t allow.”
“Then it is indeed going to take days,” Flint said. “Let’s begin.”
Silver noticed that this time he didn’t offer a hand up.
“You’re not getting that fucking treasure back,” Flint said as they began negotiating their descent.
“I know,” Silver answered. “Wasn’t counting on it.”
“You still hope to come back to Madi,” Flint commented. “That she’ll take you back in. And I guess that in your current state of mind, it’s either Madi or the cache.”
“Both at the same time would be too close to rekindling the war,” Flint said. “But tell me, honestly: can you swear you don’t want to end this war more than you want her?”
Silver swivelled around, pistol at the ready. Found Flint’s face, a study in pained earnestness. That was fucking cruel, turning back Silver’s own words at himself.
“You want a crippled version of Madi,” Flint went on, unforgiving. “One whose love you wouldn’t have to share with her life’s goal. You would hurt her that much.”
That descent was even worse than the climb. Silver hated that island, its mists, its slipperiness and its roots.
“Please kindly shut up,” he said.
Flint, who had passed him by, turned, steadied himself – had he stumbled? – and raised an eyebrow.
“That won’t endear you to most of the crew,” he went on, oblivious to Silver’s distress. “I mean, the treasure. Or lack thereof. And what if Madi rejects you in the end? You must know there’s more than a passing chance, don’t you? Won’t you hate that you didn’t at least try to get some kind of map from me? Or just some bearings?”
“Fuck you, Flint. Shut up.”
Flint sighed, glanced behind again and slowed his pace. Silver realised that he was twisting away the most annoying branches for him, in a half-stealthy way.
“Hal never managed it,” Flint said in the enduring silence.
“Beg your pardon?”
“What didn’t he manage? To make you change your mind?”
Flint snorted, not quite gently. “Don’t listen to what they say. Of course I could change my mind. Believe it or not, I can recognise good advice and follow it. No. What Hal never managed was to make me surrender.”
Yes, and he had lost his life trying, Silver thought. Was that a threat?
“Before today’s spectacular twist,” Flint said, his voice very far away, “the only two people turning me around so neatly were Miranda with her Charles Town plan, and Thomas, of course. You might feel some pride in this. Don’t you?”
He did. Silver had to admit that he did. So it was a compliment? Not a threat?
“Mrs Barlow and Thomas Hamilton. Two people you loved – still love,” Silver couldn’t help saying, as Flint pushed yet another thorny, clingy vine away from Silver’s path.
“Don’t flatter yourself,” Flint lashed back, stopping dead in his tracks. Silver stumbled forward, halted much too close. “I don’t love you. I never did.”
It was a lie. Silver had sometimes wondered how deep their friendship ran and whether some other sentiment didn’t lay dormant on Flint’s part, but whatever the kind of love, even if only the one that cares to take the thorns out of a friend’s path, there had been some.
“Never desired you as a lover does,” Flint hissed as he could read his mind, coming even closer. “And as for that friendship, well – I thought – nevermind. It’s gone.”
Something must have registered on Silver’s face, some kind of hurt, because suddenly Flint’s eyes caught his and Flint closed the gap, as if he needed a touch or an embrace. And then Flint’s hand was on Silver’s arm, a firm, gentle pressure, then at his waist, and Silver realised Flint was drawing out one of the knives from Silver’s belt right as Flint pushed him down and fell with him, trying again to knock the pistol off his hand.
“Fuck,” gasped Silver as he saw his death in the glint of the blade. Flint’s grip on his pistol hand was unshakable, and Silver had no room to draw his sword. This close, Flint’s face looked like the monster he had fought so hard not to become, twisted with fury, the white line of his mouth and the crease of his forehead and the squint of his eyes out of control, the skin marred and bruised and cut and crusted with dirt and blood. It was the sight of this blood that made Silver move – no room to properly use his sword, but enough to pull the guard up and bring it with some force – was it enough – right at that swollen gash at Flint’s hairline from which the blood had been oozing for hours.
Flint’s grunt sounded outraged and cut short, and then he rolled over, unmoving.
Had that wound been more than a cut? Was Flint dead from such a weak blow? Of course not, Silver asserted with something like relief, checking the rise and fall of his chest. But he’d passed out, if only for seconds. His eyes were already rolling underneath the eyelids, then squinting open. He huffed at the gun held only inches from his face.
“I’m sorry?” Silver asked. “Joji? You killed Joji. Do you know where you are, Captain? When?”
Silver had liked Joji, in a fascinated and horrified kind of way.
“I did. Not that I don’t regret it, but you sent him my way. This cut on my scalp is nothing, but compound it with Joji’s blow –” Flint scowled. “Without it I think you’d be dead by now, Silver.”
“Thanks to Joji and thankfully for you, I am not.”
“Jesus Christ. You’d have found six more men on the beach!”
“Already fought six alone today. You think I couldn’t do it again?”
“I counted six, or did I kill two men in my sleep?”
“The six men I sent against you. Dooley. And me.”
“I didn’t fight Dooley. I just killed him. To fucking save you. You think I truly fought you?”
Damn, it had felt like it. But maybe not.
“Right now you did.”
“Ah,” Flint said with an ugly smile. “Right now, yes.”
“And you shouldn’t have!” roared Silver. “What did you think? That then you could take Hands, and Morgan, and goddamn Wee Matthew, and all the others, in the state you are?”
Flint smirked. “Or I could have talked.”
“Hands and Morgan are mine. Ben Gunn is –”
“A former slaver, yes. I know,” Flint said with a sigh.
“Stand up,” Silver said, pointing his gun more firmly. “Walk in front, and don’t fucking attempt anything unless you really want that bullet. Because it sure felt like you do just now. And don’t talk.”
So of course, Flint did. “Isn’t it going to be tricky, navigating that path with the crutch and the pistol? What if you stumble and pull the trigger?”
“You’ll have to live with it. Or not, as it comes.”
“I don’t want your bullet,” Flint said, unfolding up with a hand to his head, a heave and a wince. “I still have to bury my men.”
Their escort had left the clearing, probably when they’d heard the shot. They were waiting on the beach and stood up when they heard the snaps and crashes of their progress through the woods. From his higher point, Silver could make the outline of the charred Walrus through the trees, and the corpses still floating in the shallow water among burned planks, splintered masts and torn sails, tossed this way and that by the ebb tide. Upon seeing them both, Hands stood his ground but cocked a pistol and aimed it to Flint’s head. Morgan nodded, and Wee Matthew nearly ran up to join them.
“So you’ve convinced him,” Matthew said. “I didn’t think you could.”
“Convinced,” Silver echoed. “I hope so. He agreed to our plan but I wouldn’t put to much trust in that. Be wary of him, eh?”
“And the treasure?” Hands called. “Do we have it?”
“We’ll have to come back for it,” Silver assured him with a certainty that only equalled his conviction that they would not. “Right now, both Flint and the treasure in the Lion, that’s a recipe for disaster.”
Hands nodded with a sly, considering, slightly vicious look to Flint. Ben Gunn joined suit, making for an unwholesome echo.
“Are we boarding?” Soares asked.
“No.” That was Flint, calmer now, having mastered his features back into haughty blankness.
“He asked to bury the Walrus’s dead first,” Silver hastened to explain.
“He did?” Wee Matthew asked, disbelieving. “Flint?”
“I sailed for over eleven years with some of these men,” Flint said, making a sweeping gesture to the bodies scattered around, which caused Silver to hop back a step, pull Matthew with him and point his pistol more firmly. “I can’t leave them like that.”
“He can’t be sincere,” Matthew whispered. “Can he? Uh. Do we help him?”
“You’ll find,” Silver said in a voice he wasn’t bothering to lower, “that Flint at his most sincere is at his most dangerous. I don’t know what he wants from it, but he’s right: we can’t leave our brothers like that. Take the launch with – no, tell Thompson to row back to the Lion and explain the situation to Captain Rackham. He has to ask Rackham for, huh, let’s say three of our most trusted men, but no more, hear me? Let’s see. Two former of Hornigold’s? And Pew. Tell him Pew must come.”
“You fucking –” Flint growled. “Pew? Pew was –”
“Singleton’s mate, yes, I know. I’ve always thought he stayed around in the hope of murdering you someday. Matthew, how many shovels do we have? Three? Have them bring four more, together with enough food for a few days. And shackles.”
“Manacles. Ankle chains. Flint nearly succeeded in killing me on our way down. I won’t take any chances.”
“You fucking rat,” Flint rasped.
Fling began sorting the dead as they were waiting for the return of the launch, arranging them side by side, setting clothes right, cleaning faces, closing sightless eyes.
They had ropes they could have used to tie him down. They didn’t. Maybe they should have.
Not long after, Matthew crossed himself and went to help Flint. Then McFarlane, the remaining Hornigold’s man. Then even Morgan. Silver sighed and went to dip his handkerchief and wash a dead face. What had been his name? Rickett, John Rickett, starboard watch. Left-handed. Couldn’t hold his rum, had cried the first time he’d caught a pox. A pirate at twenty, dead at twenty-three.
At Silver’s left hand, Flint moved and stretched, then began to take off his clothes, shirt, breeches and boots, making a show of discarding a sizable knife they hadn’t managed to discover, until he stood in his underclothes. He was covered in bruises and cuts, Silver noted absently. Flint waded into the water and began to pull out bodies, laying them on the sand and pausing to inspect their clothes and already-bloated faces. After a while, he went in deeper, swimming to the carcass of the Walrus, diving among the debris.
“What is he doing?” asked Silver. “Is he looking for someone?”
“If it was any other man, I’d swear so,” Morgan said. “Who is it he could care enough for?”
“He’s known us a long time,” Wee Matthew said, coming behind them. “Who knows.”
Flint had already dragged several bodies to the shore and was pulling out a last one, beside which he knelt, head down, combing matted grey hair with his fingers.
“Who’s that?” Morgan asked.
The face was too changed to tell, possibly, but the shaggy hair, the mangled ear and the neck tattoo were unmistakeable.
“Mr de Groot,” Matthew said, hoarse. “Christ, I may have thought he was immortal. I can’t remember a time when he wasn’t…”
Matthew shook his head, crossed himself again and strode to Flint’s side. Hal Gates, Silver reflected, had gathered many similar men to his side. Competent, loyal, moral. Nice. Or maybe he had shaped them. Matthew, now, was less intelligent than Billy and less of a leader, but all the more susceptible to Flint’s influence.
“Keep an eye on our Wee Matthew, will you, Tom?” Silver asked. “I fear Flint –”
“Sure,” Morgan answered.
“He was a good man,” Matthew was telling Flint.
Silver watched Flint blink. Of course, so freshly out of the sea, there would be water in his eyelashes. “A good man,” Flint echoed. “And a fucking good sailing master. He was already the Walrus’s when I was elected Captain, and Lord, I never could decide whether he liked me for my seamanship or abhorred me for the indignities I put her through.”
“Oh, he liked you alright,” Matthew said.
“I don’t know,” Flint answered with a strange chuckle. “Not always. I think he was too honourable for that. But whatever he thought of me he had my respect.” His hand was still on De Groot’s hair and he began to stroke it, a curious, tender, futile gesture. “In a way it felt like he was the Walrus, you know? Lived through her, voiced her needs and thoughts. Maybe it’s fitting – unfair, but fitting – that he died with her.”
“A damn good ship,” Matthew said.
“A damn good man,” Flint echoed, standing up and pulling his clothes on. “Come on, Matthew, let us bury them.”
“He’s sincere,” Matthew whispered to Silver as he was walking to the stacked shovels. Silver hopped along.
“Jesus Christ,” he said. “I told you he can be, but it doesn’t mean you can trust him! Come on, Gates fucking died thinking he could!”
“I’m not trusting him,” Matthew said, but Silver shook his head in disgust.
Soon the light would be too low to go on. Flint had begun digging his second – was it third? grave, up above the sand at the forest edge. The land breeze was settling, pushing the stench of death seawards, cooling sweat-sheeted skin to the point of shivering. Silver couldn’t dig but he could pull and had done his fair share of hauling up corpses, as had everyone – except for Pew and Hands, who sat smoking and talking by the shore. Worrying, that the ones Silver knew he could count on would be those the crew would cast aside the more readily.
“What do we do with them fuckers?” asked Thompson. “The flow tide brought in corpses from the battle with the Eurydice.” His Scottish accent was so thick Silver had trouble understanding him at times, but the way he was nudging the redcoat’s corpse with his boot was eloquent enough.
“This was Lieutenant Utley,” said Flint who had sneaked up to them. “A decent man, as they say. He treated me well enough when I offered myself as a hostage, even allowing the use of a razor in exchange for my word not to use it as a weapon.” His jaw clenched. “Today I saw him in the boats, shooting at drowning men as if he were hunting fowls. Let them burn, all of them. Let’s stack them up with kindling and burn them.”
It was their last task of the evening. They struggled with soggy wood and wet cloth for a very long while, until finally the flames rose in the night and they walked a good mile along the shore, chased away by the stench.
They settled on a patch of land drier than the rest, stinking, wet and bone-deep sad as they were, passing along the miserable stores that the Lion had deigned to part with.
“Christ,” Flint muttered as he sceptically munched on. “Biscuit – wormy biscuit – salted pork and peas. Onshore. Now if that isn’t a fitting end to a career of piracy. Lord above, I feel like I’ve gone back to my navy years.”
Silver was reasonably sure Flint’s past held no secrets to him. But Thompson raised an interested eyebrow at that and bent forward as if he hoped to hear more. Another man to pay attention to, then, on top of Matthew whom he noticed arguing with Tom Morgan, then conferring with Menzies and McFarlane.
Silver spared everyone guard duty and himself a full night of worry by having Flint’s ankles chained to a tree and making sure he himself was the only one who knew were the key was. Much later, when the waning half moon rose and woke him nonetheless, he saw it added a glint to Flint’s wide-open eyes and painted his silhouette, sitting upright against the tree trunk with his chained feet tucked under, in ghostly white and ink-black shadows.
The next day saw more of the same, or worse. The smell of death had risen to a gagging stench, made more unbearable by the cloying wafts coming from the still smouldering pyre. Mist, heated by a pale sun to thick soup-like air in their lungs, clung to the beach all day. It was near impossible to prevent the men from interacting with Flint, and as the afternoon dragged on Hornigold’s men began to move in a closer group, around Flint, working at the same graves and sharing their water with him.
As Thompson came to refill his mug at the spring Silver beckoned him to come and sit with him, affecting exhaustion and offering his flask. Thompson sat with a sigh, thankful for the reprieve.
“He told us where you plan to send him,” Thompson said in a resentful tone. “And with whom. A Hamilton, he said.”
“Did he say who this Hamilton was for him?” Silver asked with a sinking feeling.
“A very good friend from his navy years, he was. Imprisoned for political reasons.” A pause. “Hamilton is a Scottish lordship. This Thomas is a scion of a minor branch, I understand. A cousin of the late Lord James Hamilton who was secretly a Jacobite.”
In moments like that, Silver measured how much longer than himself Flint had lived in Nassau, and how much time he’d had to feel the political undercurrents of the place. And if Silver was good with men’s impulses and hearts, Flint was a natural where beliefs were at play. Hornigold’s men were overwhelmingly Scottish, now that he came to think of it. And Hornigold himself… Goddamn fucking Hell.
“There are Scotsmen bearing the name of McGraw, too.”
God, could this Thompson be more single-minded?
“And Irishmen,” Silver grunted. “He told you his real name?”
“I asked him about his navy past. I think he knows he’s reaching his end and that he's tired of hiding. He just needed to talk. In his case the name is Scottish, from the western coast near Mallaig.” Thompson raised one shoulder in a somewhat depreciative motion. “Aye, he doesn’t really know much about it as he was mostly raised by his mother’s family in Cornwall. He was the first to admit he has very little understanding of the clans or of the political affiliations. But still, he remembers a few words of Gaelic.” He chuckled. “Mostly swearwords, as it was what was passed on as McGraw apprenticed under his father on the Defiance. Ship carpentry offers numerous occasions for swearing, for sure.”
“That’s admirable. The Captain, uh, I mean Mr McGraw is a man of many resources?” Silver offered, trying to guess where Thompson was headed.
“Son of a carpenter’s mate,” Thompson mused. “And here I was, judging him, believing he’d been an aristocrat. Fuck, and he rose as high as lieutenant? He showed them all right.”
Oh, but Silver didn’t like it at all. Flint was bonding with the crew? He’d done it with Dooley before, but building on the latter’s mistrust of Silver. Here? With Gaelic swearwords and tales of a childhood Silver knew nothing about? It was different, and he hadn’t thought Flint had it in himself.
“His friend Hamilton is a lord, though,” Silver said, trying to steer Thompson back to the image of a lofty, unattainable Flint.
“But wrongfully imprisoned!” Thompson exclaimed, and Silver knew he’d made a mistake. “Is it fair to leave him to rot in that place?”
“Listen, Mr Thompson,” Silver said, regretting that he couldn’t remember the man’s Christian name. “I’ve never met Thomas Hamilton. But what I know is that having Flint, uh, James McGraw at his side will grant him some happiness, wherever they’re fated to live. And let’s speak of the man himself. Flint. You know how he is, don’t you, not his childhood or his past friends but his present deeds? His goddamn treachery? Would you say it isn’t fair to get rid of him and stop the evils he can rain down upon us? And by God, I’m not talking of killing him, just of removing him to a place that I can guarantee you is such a very mild prison that it’s rather not a prison at all.”
Thompson sent him a sideways look. “No,” he said in a very feeble attempt at duplicity. “I wouldn’t say it isn’t fair. Not at all, for Flint.”
A twig snapped behind them, sand rushed under someone’s feet.
“Hello,” Flint said, nodding at Thompson and smirking at Silver. “Were you discussing me?”
Thompson started and coloured like an errant schoolboy and Silver ground his teeth. Flint sat beside them with a huff and a wince, breaking in two the biscuit he’d been nibbling on. Matthew came in to stand behind him. Good Lord.
“Damn those weevils,” Flint said with a scowl, shaking them out of his biscuit as well as he could. “Mr Silver, I was thinking it’s such a shame, being on ship’s rations when we’re on an island like this.”
“Beg your pardon?”
“There’s game aplenty and it’s not shy. I don’t believe we’re short on shot?”
“Mr Flint,” Silver began, watching Flint go pale around the mouth at being addressed like that. Last time it had happened, it had been on another beach, they’d been stranded, and Dufresne had done the calling. “There is no way on earth I’m letting you come close to a musket.”
“Oh, I wasn’t dreaming of it,” Flint said, and this bloody meekness was the most grating thing ever. “But I could cook if you get me something. At least that stingy miser from the Lion gave us some decent oil and I think I saw mint by the creek, thankfully upstream of the battle. And wild garlic a little farther on the rocky slope over there.”
“Wild garlic?” asked Silver. “Never heard of that and I’m not sure I’ll allow it.”
“Oh, I know the weed he’s talking about,” Thompson said. “Perfectly edible but a little strong. I mean, if used too enthusiastically. I’ll eat some in front of you if it helps.”
“No need,” Silver grumbled.
Matthew went to retrieve two of their muskets and began loading them. “I’ll go look for rabbits, Captain,” he said, and Silver noted that Flint wasn’t correcting him on the address.
“Showing off your new allies, are you, Captain?” he said.
“Don’t call me that,” Flint snarled, and went off to dig another grave.
At least they ate their fill of excellent rabbit for supper. Nonetheless, Silver was exceedingly relieved when the burials were done the next day, Flint stowed safely and in irons in the Lion’s hold, and the whole of them finally on their way to Savannah.
Four days later, his former relief felt largely like hubris.
“Captain Rackham,” he said, storming into the cabin, “how many days left to Savannah?”
“They tell me another three days,” Rackham answered with a worried glance. “Do we have a problem?”
“A fucking mutiny on our hands, is what we have. Fuck, if I had known it would be this complicated -”
“You could have killed him,” suggested Rackham. “You argued that he deserved better.”
“And you agreed,” Silver lashed back. “Without Anne Bonny nearby, you’re not one for murder, are you, Captain?”
“Anne didn’t approve much,” Rackham said, his expression shifting minutely. “So, a mutiny?” He sighed, unconsciously stroking the healing gash on his hand. “I thought we were done after the last time he tried to steal my sword. Didn’t we establish that we had dug out all his hidden knives? Goddammit, where are this man’s limits? He should be too exhausted to fight by now.”
“I’m not even sure he’s done any fighting this time,” Silver grumbled. “Mostly, he’s talked, I imagine. This ship is too damn small to seclude him properly.”
“And? How many men?”
“Matthew and his messmate, what’s his name? Davies. And five among our nine Scotsmen. Did you know they were Jacobites?”
“Of course I did. Hornigold used to rant about it all the time. You didn’t?”
“Fuck no. When were you going to tell me?”
“And what would you have done about it? We all had a reason to go on the account.”
“Yeah, well, Flint knew what to do about it. He somewhat convinced them he’s on their side, in a nebulous way. That his Thomas was, which I know for a fact is complete bullshit. Thomas Hamilton was a London lord, through and through.”
“Was? Hamilton was? If he’s not alive, we’re going to have a bigger problem, my friend.”
“Was a lord. He’s an inmate now, isn’t he? Anyway these seven men have been convinced that Flint and Hamilton are martyrs for freedom and you and I the oppressors.”
“If it’s only seven I think we’re good. Let’s move Flint to my cabin and chain them in the hold in his place. This wind looks like it will keep steady, so we don’t precisely need them on deck. Are you sure of that number?”
“Morgan is the informer and he’s been stealthy enough that they trust him, the poor souls. I’m sure about these seven but there could be more. I wouldn’t trust anybody else than you, me, Morgan, Hands and Pew to come close to Flint right now, and maybe this man of yours, George Merry. Oh, and Ben Gunn, but he doesn’t account to much when it comes to fighting.”
“Merry? That kid?”
“Well, he’s a good fighter and doesn’t care for Flint. Can you ever imagine him bursting into song at the idea of a fight for freedom?”
“A sea shanty about gold and rum would be more in his line, to be sure.”
“Well,” Rackham said, passing his tongue over his lips, the nerves, probably. “This will have to do. I’d be thankful if you could make it appear as if it were you who wanted these men chained down, does it agree with you?”
“While you look at me in barely concealed disgust, huh? Safeguarding your good reputation with the crew? Swearing on your flag and your honour to set the seven free as soon as I’ll have vacated the premises?”
“Listen, Mr Silver. It seems to me that you aren’t that keen on going on with a life on the account. It comes to sense that you wouldn’t mind a blemish such as this on your reputation, doesn’t it? I, on the opposite…”
Silver shook his head. “You’re right,” he sighed. “Better if it’s me. And I’ll go talk with Flint. I do wish he’d calm down.”
“Here comes breakfast, Cap-” Silver caught himself on time. But ‘Mr Flint’ felt like an affront, and while he had James ready on his tongue and wanted to use it that ship had sailed. “Here comes breakfast,” he simply repeated. “Oatmeal with molasses. I’m afraid we’re back to ship’s stores.”
“Dammit, Silver,” came the raspy voice from Rackham’s hammock. “Didn’t you even think of gathering fruits or greens on the island? Some pirates you are, you and Rackham, without Featherstone to beat some practicality into your heads. You’re lucky this is not a long cruise.”
Silver stepped inside, his eyes slowly adjusting to the gloom, taking in Flint’s reclining form in the hammock, his head pillowed on his raised arms. Chains clinked.
“I can’t eat like that,” Flint observed.
They had passed the chain of his manacles through the hammock fastenings, effectively keeping his hands up above his head.
“How do you –” Silver began, unsure whether what he had been about to ask and had stopped in time had come from morbid curiosity or genuine concern.
“How do I what?” Flint strained to pull his torso up and turn to Silver, his chains rattling.
“-Relieve yourself?” Silver ended, stunned into answering by how much worse Flint looked.
The wounds of the battle day had begun mending, thankfully, the gash on his forehead finally stitched and the accompanying bruise gone yellow and fading. But he’d earned himself new bruises, a split lip, blueish finger-shaped marks on his clavicle and throat. And those weren’t the worst of it. What truly shocked Silver were the marks of exhaustion, the crease between his eyebrows etched as deep as a wound, the sunken eyes and the bags underneath swollen and gone near-black. The deep lines around his mouth, the painful twitches of small muscles at his jaw.
Yet Flint, again, managed to school his face into blankness under Silver’s gaze, raising an ironical eyebrow.
“I call,” he answered. “They unfasten me and take me to the head. Watch me go, of course. Since you’re an intelligent man, I’m sure you can see it's more of a liability than just lengthening my chains as in the hold.”
“Hands!” Silver called. “I need a second pair of hands and a pistol! Oh, and bring in a longer chain and a bucket, too!”
The man who entered announced himself with the sound of a cocked pistol, but it was Pew, not Hands.
“Morning, Flint,” he said. “Mr Silver. Hands went to the head, ate something bad yesterday. That one needs a lesson?”
“He needs to eat,” Silver said, feeling slightly nauseous at Pew’s obvious gloating. “I’ll have to unhook his manacles, lengthen his chain and free one hand, please point that gun at his head while I’m within his reach.”
Pew came closer and smiled, slowly. Pointed the gun at Flint’s stomach. “Better so, my sweet Captain. Move and you’re dead. In a few hours, painfully.”
Flint huffed. “Some friends you’ve made, Silver.”
“At his head, I said, Mr Pew,” Silver said, and he’d managed to infuse enough of Long John Silver in his tone for Pew to cower and obey.
“You should stop fighting your restraints,” Silver said as he began rigging them anew to allow Flint more autonomy.
“Goddammit, because your wrists are chafed to the point of bleeding!”
“Then take them off. I can’t run very far on a sloop and you’re locking the door anyway.”
“You know I can’t. Here, we’re done. And here’s your meal.”
Flint sighed, sat up in the hammock and pulled the plate onto his lap. He began eating, methodically, without stopping, but still more daintily than most pirates Silver had met.
“You really are the son of a Scottish carpenter’s mate?” Silver asked as he pulled Rackham’s chair to sit by Flint.
“I am,” Flint said. “Why? Do you think I lied to Thompson and the others? I didn’t invent the Gaelic.”
“You could have picked it up somewhere. You don’t behave like a carpenter’s son.”
“You of all people should know someone can be more than one thing. Gates thought I behaved too much like a navy officer, navy officers thought I behaved too much like a foremast hand.” Flint winced slightly and shrugged. “Believe anything you want, Silver. I don’t care.”
He ate several mouthfuls in silence. Then swallowed and looked around for something, probably a napkin to wipe his mouth with. Used the back of his hand.
“So you’ve found out about my men”, he said finally.
“About this little mutiny of yours, yes,” Silver answered. There could be no casual conversation with Flint, not in the present settings – this was intelligence gathering, and it would be on both sides. Maybe Silver would be able to see if they’d caught everyone.
“Somebody talked?” Flint attempted. “Who?”
“They attempted to recruit Morgan,” Silver smirked. “I think they began by calling him too much of a decent man to follow my lead.”
“Fucking imbeciles,” Flint growled. “Whose brilliant idea it was?”
“Matthew’s. You turned him around by showing care fort the dead on the beach, but Morgan cared, too.”
“You caught all five of them?” Flint asked. “They’re in the hold?”
“Five?” Silver only said, but he knew his surprise at the too-small number had been noticed and he gave a disgruntled shake of his head. So much for trying to pry something out of that man. “They’re in the hold, yes,” was what he settled for. “Rackham officially objects and will set them free as soon as we deliver you to the plantation.”
“Hm. You won’t be their pirate king anymore, not after that,” Flint said, the dark satisfaction in his tone sending a spike of fresh grief into Silver’s heart. “Nor any kind of pirate anything, even. Unless maybe you want to reshape yourself in his image and join his ilk.”
He had jutted his chin towards Pew, who was licking his lips, standing with his hand curled around Flint’s chain where it passed through the hammock ring, looking like he was about to yank it for his own amusement.
“My God,” Silver said. “No. Take your fucking hand off that chain, Mr Pew.”
“If I have to be his chambermaid at least I’ll have a little fun,” Pew said with a scowl. At Silver’s menacing glance, he began to lower his hand but seemed to change his mind and brought it back, pulling once on the chain. “Needs a lesson, that fucking sod.” He bared his teeth to Flint. “How would you like it, pillow-biter?”
Flint hissed and his shackled hand twisted to get purchase on the chain.
Pew answered with a yank of his own and an ugly smile. “Heard that’s how they keep them in line in Bedlam.”
“You fucking –” Flint yelled, right as he lunged forward and threw the plate into Pew’s face.
But it was Silver who sent a heavy fist into Pew’s jaw, felling him, and then he was pulling him away by the collar and thank God that he had calculated the length of Flint’s chain right, because Flint couldn’t reach the door.
They exited and Silver slammed the door, locked it, heard something crash against the panel – Rackham’s inkwell, probably.
He left Pew where he was - sat down and feeling his jaw – and hastened to the forecastle.
“Tom, what did you tell Pew of Thomas Hamilton?” he asked Morgan, who’d ran up to the noise.
“Nothing. But I told Hands, since he asked about how we hoped to keep Flint quiet and I didn’t see any harm in it.”
“Well, now you see.”
“We need them,” Morgan said. “You know I’m right.”
“Or you could kill Flint.”
“No,” Silver said, sitting down heavily. “I couldn’t.”
In the next hours, Pew had the decency to make himself scarce, and Silver was, again, the one to bring Flint his dog’s watch meal, this time flanked by Morgan.
He was reclining in the hammock again, and the afternoon light was turning his eyes greener.
“I wish you’d sleep,” Silver said. “Whatever you’re thinking or planning, driving yourself into the ground like that won’t help.”
Flint didn’t move and Silver set the plate and pitcher on the deck where he could take them.
“Were you in my place,” came Flint’s voice. “Could you find sleep? Now get out.”
And for all his skill and imagination when it came to storytelling, Silver wasn’t able to find an opening.
“Captain Rackham, would you by chance have anything to read?” Silver asked as the night was falling.
“I beg your pardon?”
“I’d like a book.”
“Do you intend to bait Flint with some reading? Or just to buy his cooperation? Pardon me but I fear he has gone too far into his own tragedy to follow along such a plan.”
Silver shook his head. “Not for Flint. It’s just that, ah. We’re reduced to counting the days, hour by hour even, until we reach Savannah, waiting for Flint’s next bout of madness, and I can’t stand being idle. Nobody dares whipping out a fiddle and when they try to sing it comes out as murder ballads or dirges. I want a book.”
“You read, Mr Silver,” Rackham said. “Interesting. We really don’t know that much about you, do we? Does the Captain?”
“You know enough.”
Rackham raised his hands in apology. “There is something,” he said, “but you must be aware that this ship has only recently come into my care. It was Woodes Rogers’s before.”
“And? Wouldn’t one hope a governor to be decently well-read?”
“Well. He had one book onboard. His own.”
“Jesus Christ, does the man bring a copy everywhere?”
“Would seem so. I can fetch it for you if you wish. I stowed it at the quarter gallery, such as we have, where I, um, intended to use it for matters of hygiene, if you catch my meaning.”
“That bad, uh. But it might be bad enough for an entertaining read?”
“Don’t get your hopes too high.”
“You’re right,” Silver said two hours later, pushing away the lantern by the light of which he had tried to make sense of Rogers’s ramblings. “That book is of the supremely dull kind of bad.”
“I’m glad you agree,” Rackham said from his station at the railing, his voice carrying over the water.
“I mean: therefore without any disguises I shall publish the Copies of all our material Regulations and Agreements, and keep to the usual Methods of Sea-Journals, omitting nothing that happened remarkable to ourselves, or that may serve for Information or Improvement to others in the like Cases. Every day’s Transactions begin at the foregoing Day about twelve a Clock, and end at the same Hour the following day carrying that Date. Who in their right mind begins a tale with such a repulsive sentence and hopes to be read any further?”
“I must congratulate you for your rendition,” Rackham said. “You could hear each and every misguided attempt at capitalisation. Upon reflexion, maybe a dramatic reading of a few short passages could make for an acceptable entertainment?”
Silver laughed, and began to settle into his first relaxed evening for he didn’t want to know how long.
And that was when he heard the shouts – right before the howls began, those of an enraged beast more than a man.
Silver swore, grabbed his lantern and threw down the book to hop across the desk faster than he would have thought possible, Rackham running after him.
They found mayhem in the captain’s cabin. Tom Morgan and George Merry where more or less succeeding in pinning Flint down onto the deck, Flint still managing to land a few painful-looking blows by means of the chain at his wrist, while Israel Hands was kicking him wherever his boots could land. Pew was rolling on the floor, clutching at his face with both hands and uttering a piercing, awful, never-ending whine, and Ben Gunn was hovering over him, seemingly unsure of what to do. There was a trampled candle on the floor among the remnants of the lantern it had been removed from, and charred debris scattered about, made soggy by the waste from the overturned bucket.
Silver raised his lantern. “What the fuck happened here?” he asked in a voice that froze everyone, except for Pew whose whine morphed into sobs.
“My eyes!” Pew cried. “Fucking whoreson of a sodomite took my eyes!”
“Is his chain still fastened?” Silver asked, and Morgan nodded. “Then, uh, you, Mr Merry, and you, Ben, you take Pew belowdecks. Is there some sort of surgeon on this ship?”
“Not really,” Rackham answered. “But there’s medicine. And rum.”
“The others, let Flint go and step back where he can’t get you.”
Silver bent down, balancing on his crutch, passed an arm under Pew’s and hauled him up to rest him on the desk.
“What did you do?” he asked him.
His face was a frightening mess. Blood and raw flesh and blisters and swelling already where his eyes should be, deep gouging across the cheeks.
“Nothing,” sobbed Pew. “I did nothing. I swear on the Bible I didn’t touch him.”
“I mean: what were you doing in this cabin?” Silver said, articulating each word with exaggerated care.
“We thought we should see to his waste bucket,” Hands answered instead.
“Who told you to?”
“No one,” groused Pew. “I’m sorry, Mr Silver. Fucking sorry. We thought we’d have a little fun, nothing ugly, you know? Ah, fucking hell, my eyes, my eyes, fuck –”
“Talking. Only talking, I swear,” Hands hastened to add, and for the first time Silver thought he could hear fear in his tone. “Silver, Flint has to be put down. See what he did?”
“Get Pew to the sickbay,” Silver repeated to Merry. “Nobody’s going to be put down except maybe the fucking cretins who thought it clever to come and goad him. Flint. You did that?”
“They came in and insulted Thomas,” Flint growled. He sat up on the floor, blood seeping from yet another gash at the back of his skull, and Silver realised he remembered this berserk scowl from after Singleton’s murder. “Pew came too close and he had a lantern. I took it, broke it, used the shards.”
“The candle was still alight,” Hands said. “He stabbed Pew in the eye with it.”
A small shift of Flint’s hand caught Silver’s eyes, which made him aware of the even smaller noise - not chains but a tiny metallic jingle nonetheless.
“Tom,” Silver said. “Flint has the keys. Left hand.”
Behind him, Rackham drew a pistol and cocked it. Tom Morgan stepped around Flint and pried off the keys, a swift, efficient move. Flint swore under his breath, then sighed. Merry shifted and walked to Pew, eased his arm over his own shoulders and took him away, Ben helping on the other side.
“So,” Silver said, hearing how menacing his voice sounded. “Who was there?”
“Only Hands and Pew,” Flint said, pausing to spit blood. “Morgan and Merry came later when they heard the commotion. It was Morgan who put out the fire from the candle with the waste bucket. You probably owe him your ship, Captain Rackham.”
“Hands will join the others in the hold,” Rackham said. “Whatever you say of his usefulness, Silver. And he’s out of my ship at the nearest port, with Pew if he’s still alive. As for you, Flint. You don’t even lay a finger on anyone else here or I put you out of your fucking misery.”
“I might object to the last part,” Silver said. “Or not. But Hands stays with me.” He looked down at Flint, who was still sitting and panting heavily. “Is there still some spark of sanity in there?” he asked him. “If I stay to clean that goddamn mess, are you going to attack me? Because I swear, if you only look like you’re going to move, I’ll leave you to wallow in the shit and blood for the rest of the way.”
“I’ll stay with you,” Rackham said. “I want my damn cabin to be still habitable when this ordeal ends. You hold the pistol, I tidy up. Mr Morgan, please fetch a water bucket and a swab and then leave.”
From the moment he had exchanged glances and a few words with Rackham as he’d first stepped onto the Lion, from the moment this plan had been brought into existence, Silver had watched it unfold with a weird sort of distance, as if he were already telling it to someone – to Madi. It had felt written, James Flint’s reluctance, disbelief and rebellion, his dogged resistance, his clinging to the dark, like the perfect beginning for some incomplete being, born in darkness and then set free to hatch into the light and become his true self. But this, he resolved, he wouldn’t tell Madi. The madness in Flint’s eyes, the stink and the blood, the maiming of a man – the crew will look after you echoed in his memory, but the crew was rejecting Pew, and only Hands would, would perhaps if he still harboured some remnants of decency, care for him.
What he would say, maybe, was that at first Flint had resisted – it was true, wasn’t it? And that the closest they came to Savannah, the more accepting he had become, until he had found peace at the end of his journey. A near-Homeric tale that he hoped would mirror Madi’s and his own journey to peace, and Silver would do everything in his power to make the story less of a lie – after all, they still had two days.
Flint grunted, pushed himself up with a hand pressing at his ribs, swaying, and for the first time Silver thought this might not be an act, and that, indeed, they were witnessing the end of his physical resources and his resistance. That Silver’s inner tale was becoming a prophecy.
Flint wobbled the two paces to the hammock, sat back, his face haggard in the light of the lantern, and brought a bloodied hand to his brow. It left a dark smudge that he didn’t appear to feel. “My God,” he said.
“Anne tried this caper not so long ago, if you remember,” Rackham said, weirdly calm. “Slashed her own hands quite dreadfully.”
“I pulled my shirt cuffs over my hands. This is not my blood. God.”
“You thoroughly blinded him, you know,” Rackham continued in the same quiet voice.
Flint touched the back of his own head, brought it before his eyes with some more blood on it.
“He’s stunned, I think,” Rackham whispered as he began to scrub the floor. “I mean shocked out of his mind.”
Silver nodded and kept the aim of his pistol steady on Flint’s shape.
“I did what I wanted to do,” Flint said quite clearly. “Taking out his eyes. He – Christ, he said I couldn’t hope to find Thomas as I had left him. That in Bedlam – that in Bedlam, fuck – he asked how many times I thought he’d had to beg. How many times he paid with – God, I can’t. He said he’d have loved to watch.”
He shivered once, twice, three times in succession, sucked in a shaky breath to make himself stop.
“And he wasn’t only here to talk, whatever Hands says. He was heating up, and he – Singleton’s best mate, and they were – I had to check them so often, which was so damn fucking dangerous because the crew feared them, too. God, Singleton and him –”
“Singleton was blade-happy,” Rackham said. “A torturer. I’ve heard the tales.”
“Pew, too,” whispered Flint. “Oh, God.”
“And you? What does it make you?” Rackham asked, still scrubbing.
Flint shivered again. “A dark man,” he said, so low it was almost inaudible. “A violent man.”
“I’ve known a few violent people,” Rackham said. “Some of them were my friends, and they were good people too. You, you’re also a man who’s just had his world turned upside down and who hasn’t properly slept in days. Maybe weeks. This here on the deck is done, I’ll go fetch you some rum.”
The door clicked shut. Silver pulled the chair from the desk to an area safely out of Flint’s reach and sat down. He authorised himself a huff, nearly a chuckle.
“You could make it easier, you know,” he said. “Stop fighting us every step of the way?”
“Why should I?” came from the darkness of the hammock, a thoroughly raw and drained voice.
“Because you want to reach the plantation.”
“You think I do.”
“Listen, James,” Silver said, and he knew he had no right, but he mourned their friendship and he wanted to use this name while he still could. While Flint was too exhausted to react. “I know you’ve come to the conclusion that I might tell the truth. That I do tell it. That Thomas is alive.”
He paused, taking the time to let Flint know he’d caught his rushed, noisy breath intake.
“If not, you wouldn’t have rallied the Scotsmen around Thomas Hamilton’s name,” he continued. “You’d have gone on with your old tunes about war with England instead of all that talk of freedom. And, sorry to come back to that, but you wouldn’t have felt it so deep, what Pew –”
“Shut the fuck up.”
“You will come to the plantation,” Silver said in the softest voice he could. “You will find your Thomas there. And you know, like I know, that you love him enough to love him just the same, whatever the ways he’s changed. There are no versions of this story where you won’t welcome him in. And I don’t know him at all, but judging by who you are and how you talk of him, his love will be enough to welcome you in. He will heal, James. You will too. Just let yourself come to this. Stop fighting. I know you believe me.”
“You don’t understand,” Flint said. “You would have me brought, in chains, to a prison with walls so high and a secret so well-kept that nobody ever heard about it. And then you’d have me believe – because I do, damn your wicked tongue, I fucking do – that Thomas is there, has been buried there, God I mean buried alive for I don’t know how many years, and you tell me to stop fighting? But I can’t abide the idea of Thomas rotting there. Don’t you see? I abhor it!” Thee was a clang of metal as Flint’s agitation propagated to his chains. “Stop fighting, you say. I would fight the whole world to free him from this place.”
“But what if he’s not rotting? What if he’s found peace after the horrors I won’t speak about? We were assured this is a very mild prison, a place for reform and not for punishment. Will you get him out against his will?”
“Reform behind walls,” Flint spat. “That you can’t scale. And reform of what? Thomas isn’t a criminal. What if he does want out, Silver? Did you lay the choice into his hands at any point, or is it just as you did with me?”
“And what if it’s too dangerous? What if he’s shot as you pass the walls, what if they run after you and their dogs catch him and tear him into pieces? Or what, even, if he has to watch you agonise at his feet? Until now you’ve done incredible things, inhuman things, because you thought you had nothing to lose and so you courted death. What I want to achieve now, James, is have you remember how it feels to fear for loved ones who, by God, are alive. To have you come back to life. Have you face the choice between doing what’s right and condemn them, or doing what’s needed and save them. Like I had to do.”
“While taking the choice away from them? Listen, Silver. When I first met Thomas, I thought his plan was a spoiled idealist’s fancy. Lord, it was so very easy to want to protect him from it! And then I got to know the man, heard his arguments and adhered to it, but I still knew how dangerous it was and how close to mortal failure it brought him. Yet until the end, I helped him try to achieve it.”
“And it destroyed him! And you! And you respected Lady Hamilton’s choice, on that fucking warship when she made you take her to Charles Town. And it killed her!”
The hiss of Flint’s breathing took at once a ragged quality, and Silver decided he’d had the man close to sobbing.
“Shut up,” Flint rasped, and it sounded like he was begging. “Please shut the fuck up.”
Absurdly, Rackham knocked before he came in.
“I’m back,” he said with a lofty smile. “Peter Ashe killed Miranda Barlow, I heard. And I don’t know a thing about Thomas Hamilton but I’d wager it wasn’t James Flint or whatever his name was back then who sent him behind bars. The survivors, I’ve learnt, are not the executioners.”
He set the mug on the desk, then turned to discharge the bundle he’d tucked under his arm into Flint’s hands.
“You’re going to feel cold,” he said. “You probably already are. Here’s a blanket. And here’s your grog. I made it quite stiff.” There was a clang as he lay a bucket on the floor. “There’s freshwater in there in case you wish to clean that mess off yourself, too.”
“Why are you doing this?” Flint said.
“The blanket and the rum, or the bigger picture?” Rackham asked, but Flint remained silent.
“All right,” Rackham rallied. “Both. As for the most immediate matter, I’ve witnessed something very similar – been told, rather, as I was away. And very much the cause of it. Anne found herself in a position quite like yours, upset, alone, adrift. Lost. It caused her to kill two innocent people. The one who had the most to fear about the situation – it was Max, you see, who was being urged to get rid of Anne, well, Max welcomed her, hid the evidence, clothed her, fed her, held her tight, brought Anne’s self back. I can’t do as much for you, but I thought I’d give back a little of what has been bestowed upon Anne.”
He paused, and a curt, neutral, closed-mouth sound emanated from Flint’s corner.
“As for the bigger picture, let’s say I have an indirect interest both financial and personal in seeing Captain Flint ended for good. The person who impressed this task on me was thinking of a definitive solution of the sort you can imagine, but I found Silver’s plan much more to my taste. So, if you could please let yourself be brought to that place and make yourself scarce it would greatly alleviate my worry.”
Flint cleared his throat. “Well, I guess,” he began. A pause. “Thank you, Jack.”
Rackham’s teeth glinted in the lantern light. “You’re welcome, Captain,” he said, and as he and Silver passed the door it left Silver hating the whole world and most of all himself.
“He’s asleep,” Rackham told Silver, an unbelievable news if there was one as the sun was well on its way to zenith. “I just checked in. I don’t know if it was the grog, the fight or just plain exhaustion finally taking its due. Or whatever words you managed to make count before you made a mess of it with the Barlow woman.”
“The grog?” Silver asked. “You spiked it? Laudanum?”
Rackham made a strange sort of face, not exactly distaste, mistrust, perhaps. “No. Don’t you think that in the state in which he finds himself, he deserves some say in what happens to him, the little bits of it we can allow? I just made the grog stiff, as I told him.”
“And Pew, how is he?”
“I don’t give a rat’s arse about Pew, except inasmuch as he leaves that ship as fast as humanly possible. Since it appears he’s holding on.”
“When do we arrive?”
“We’ve made good way. If the wind holds we’ll drop anchor late in the night, at dawn at the latest.”
“Then I’ll go find Flint a washbasin and a cloth. Is there someone of similar build in the crew who could lend him a shirt?”
“Leave it alone. Let him sleep.”
But Silver had never been able to leave it alone where it concerned Flint. Especially now, less than twenty-four hours before he’d forfeit this pivotal, essential, once-friend of his soon former life.
Twice, he pushed the door and watched him, listening to the soft snores, considering how sleep didn’t appease his face.
The third time, he lay the washbasin on the deck with a clang as he went to open the door, and stomped his crutch with some force as he came in. If he had thought to wake him with the noise, or if he had just wanted to be polite and announce himself, it was in vain. Inside, Flint was already awake and sitting on the chair, and if he cared for Silver’s arrival one way or the other it didn’t show.
“Ah, you’re up. Slept well?” Silver asked. “Feeling better?”
No answer. Flint’s back was to the door; shirtless. He must have been awake sometime earlier, maybe before the morning, and had used the water bucket to wash his clothes. The shirt was now dry and flowing soft in his hands as he mended it. On his torso, the bruises upon older bruises were a fright.
But Flint was making himself presentable. His mind was in the future, to the plantation, not in the past with his old friends turned enemies. What Silver had hoped to tell Madi had become true.
“Here’s a washbasin,” Silver said, before letting his voice falter as he realised Flint’s face and hair were clean of the blood and grime. “Ah, that is, if you still need it. For anything. Uh. Is there something you need?”
Flint turned his head at that and raised a wry eyebrow. “A razor? Give you my word.”
Silver snorted. “I’m not lieutenant Utley. I can trim your beard for you if you wish. With scissors.”
“So much trust.”
“Oh, don’t worry, I’ll chain your hands up.”
“Fuck you, Silver. All right. Do it.”
There was not much to do, really. But what length Silver managed to clip from his beard managed to make Flint look less like a vengeful wraith and more like – to be honest, a battle-weary pirate captain, but still. The sides would need a razor, and possibly the hair if he wanted to keep it like that. Well, from now on what he wanted wasn’t going to be what he could get, and a razor in his hand would certainly be out of the realm of possibilities. A small cost, Silver thought, weighed against what he’d get in exchange. His lost, great love.
Flint blinked, set his eyes on Silver’s. “The chains,” he said. “If you’re done. That’s truly uncomfortable.”
Another instance of James Flint – McGraw? beginning his journey back to life. Discomfort, if not an endurance for pain beyond what would have killed a lesser man, had been the very definition of Flint’s way of life for as long as Silver had known him.
Silver nodded and went to put the chains back to right – to less wrong. Flint’s needlework on the shirt was nearly flawless, he noticed, the tears mended with small even stitches and the eyelets remade. There was maybe an area of bunched fabric at the collar, but all in all sewing appeared to be another of these secret skills Flint couldn’t help excelling at. Christ, he’d miss this man.
“How does it happen?” Flint asked. “It’s tomorrow, isn’t it.”
“You’ve traced our progress?” He’d been in the hold for most of it, by God.
Flint had never been boastful per se, but he wasn’t shy when it came to acknowledging his own strengths either. He shrugged. “I know where we were and I know where we’re going. We’ve veered west and the land isn’t far if I judge by the seabirds. And we’re in Savannah’s ship lane, as much as it exists for such a recent settlement, as shown by the at least two separate instances of a rather nervous sail beating into the wind to avoid us. So, what will you do with me?”
Silver huffed a laugh. “Rackham said you were finally sleeping because of exhaustion and rum. Now I’m wondering whether you calculated exactly how far you could go and when.”
“Well. If you want to know – actually, we’ll be taking you to the plantation in such a way as you don’t know. Where the plantation lies, how far from the town, how deep inland.”
“Bag on my head, chained hands, cart going in circles and other niceties?”
“Exactly. And we’ll search you again and provide you with an escort to match. Rackham wanted Merry and Morgan. I imposed Morgan and Hands. And Ben Gunn, because three is better than two where you’re concerned.”
Flint scowled. Looked at Silver like he’d looked at Berringer, once.
“Hands can take you in a fight. So Hands it is.”
“You know I’ll break away from that place,” Flint said, hard as iron.
“Not if Hamilton refuses. And even if he agrees… There’ll be the land to account for. Wilderness, the local tribes. A coast you don’t know, waterpoints you’ll have to find. Nor resources beyond what you can steal, no fighter crew to second you. It’ll take months, at least, for you to plan it, and with little chance of success. You might die, he might die, you might get lost or mired in some life he chooses over your fight. If you ever emerge, it will be in such a long time that the crews will be disbanded and Julius will have won. No war left for you to fight.” He grinned. “You’re not the only one able to strategize, Captain Flint.”
There were teeth and a naked challenge in Flint’s smile. For the time of two heartbeats, it seemed they’d come back to the core of what had bonded them so tightly once, this battle of wits that didn’t exclude an instinctive, unescapable admiration. Then something soft, very unsure – anguished – that sat utterly foreign on Flint’s rugged features erased all of what Silver knew of him.
“If Thomas isn’t there,” Flint said, obviously fighting to turn this new state of being into something a pirate captain could say. “If he has never been, or if he’s dead… I’ll chase you to the end of the world, Silver. There’ll be no place remote or safe enough for you.”
“I know,” Silver said softly. “Thomas is my shield, James McGraw. Without him I know I’m dead. So maybe you can fucking believe me when I tell you he’s there.”
A silence, and then: “it was close, wasn’t it, on Skeleton Island? You’d have killed me if I hadn’t believed you enough? And you would have left Thomas to rot.”
Silver looked into the eyes of the man whose features were James Flint’s and whom he didn’t know at all, and nodded yes.
Two days later, Ben Gunn, Hands and Morgan came back, alone and unscathed. Hands nodded and smiled but it was Morgan who walked up to Silver and Rackham and took them aside.
“All went well?” Silver asked. “It was truly Flint’s Hamilton?”
“It was. Although you’d have been hard pressed to guess he’s been a lord once. But Flint knew him, that’s for sure.”
“Are you certain?”
“They kissed in broad daylight, with guards and inmates milling around. Let me tell you, it was not a chaste kiss.”
“In plain view of the guards? He’s mad-” began Silver, then sighed. “Who cares. It makes for a fitting ending to that story.”
Daylight. He could hear it already, how he’d tell her of Flint’s final rejection of the dark, of his soaring to the light. And with Hamilton there to hinder Flint’s movements, she’d never know what darkness had really meant for him.
“You know,” he said to Rackham, maybe to try the sound of his tale. “I thought I was the living man who has the deepest knowledge of him. His impulses, his heart. Yet the other day when he relaxed down I felt he had become another man. One that I didn’t know at all. Sweeter, less dark. Isn’t that strange?”
“Yes,” Rackham said. “Yes, it is, that you should think so. I won’t pretend I knew him well and as a certainty he had many sides to his character. But I never saw a man truer to his own self, that day as in any day of our acquaintance.”
“One last thing,” Morgan said.
“Yes?” Rackham and Silver said together, both frowning.
“I searched him at the plantation gates, as you asked me. There was one knife we missed.”
“Fuck him, another one?” Silver said.
“Pew’s pocket knife, sewn into that quilted collar he has on his shirt. Seems that Pew wanted to do more than talk, that night in the cabin.”
A memory of Hands, babbling they’d but come to talk, afraid, flashed through Silver’s mind. Then of bunched fabric in a shirt collar, of Flint-turned-McGraw, peacefully mending his clothes – sewing in that knife right under his nose, it seemed.
“You have it here?”
“I left it where it was.”
“You what? Left it to Flint? Damn your face, Tom!”
“I told you both because I thought you had to be warned about Pew, blind or not. I’m sorry, Silver. Flint has more than earned it. Or so I thought.”