Fandom: Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag
Warnings: Violence, swearing, and detailed descriptions of eighteenth century surgery.
Summary: Adewale is injured. Edward Kenway's solution? Steal a surgeon, of course! Final chapter, and author's notes.
The Little Fishes and the Sharks
An AC4 fan fiction by xahra99
Chapter Two: The Physician
West Indies, 1715.
Her Majesty's sloop Tryal lurched as her sails caught the wind. Charles Johnson cursed as his quill-pen scored a deep furrow across the pages of his journal. He had been working on a drawing of the tail-feathers of a tropicbird. It had not been going well. Now the tear bisected his painstaking illustration as neatly as an anatomist's knife. Beset by a sudden fit of pique, he tossed his quill-pen to one corner of his desk and his scalpel to another. The blade stuck in the wood as neatly as a dart.
There were undoubtedly great scientific discoveries to be made in the sparkling waters of the Caribbean. As Johnson threw the tropicbird from the porthole he resigned himself to the fact that they would be made by someone else.
His cabin stank of rotting flesh.
Johnson rose from the table and began to tidy away his things. It did not take long. The cabin was so small that he could have stretched his arms out to touch the walls on either side. There was just room for a low bed, Johnson's writing desk, and a sea-chest. Johnson had had the carpenter construct two narrow bunks against the wall by the door, in order that he could minister more effectively to his patients. The bunks, thank God, were empty, but they took up most of the space. Fortunately their journey from Bristol had been uneventful, and no men had required his constant care. Johnson's space was his own. It was more privacy than most men got aboard a ship and Johnson was thankful for it.
He stacked the books in his sea-chest and flopped down on his bunk with a sigh.
I must hope, he thought, that I am a better surgeon than a natural philosopher.
It would not be hard. Johnson's sutures were excellent; his sketches merely passable. His anatomical specimens decayed within minutes, his jars of formaldehyde shattered and spilled his specimens on deck and his pressed butterflies crumbled to fragments. He was interested in ships, and in the men who sailed them, but his enquiries had had mixed results. The stories the crew told of their lives were boring if they were lucky or unpleasant if they weren't. As for life in the Navy, it was not so much a life of adventure on the high seas as it was constant work.
Johnson had thought to begin a collection of sea shanties, and had begun with 'There was a Parson's Daughter, with her Red and Rosy Cheeks', which sounded promising enough, but unfortunately the song degenerated within two verses into a tale of such lewdness that Johnson could not bring himself to put pen to paper. It was an age of exploration, where naval surgeons, often the most educated men aboard a ship, pillaged strange new worlds with great enthusiasm. The strange new worlds revealed within the tale of the Parson's Daughter were places Johnson did not desire to go.
"Sail!" somebody shouted from the deck. The cry barely intruded on Johnson' thoughts. Sailors were always shouting something.
He roused himself enough to rifle through his sea-chest in search of novel reading material. No discoveries there. He'd studied every book within the chest a dozen times. None tempted him. Johnson reached for a dog-eared copy of the Bible and turned to the passage on Jonah and the whale. He should, he knew, be grateful. Jonah had had not even a porthole to break the monotony of a sea cruise.
The ship lurched again. Johnson wedged a boot into the corner to prevent himself from rolling out onto the floor. There were more shouts. Feet drummed on the deck. Nobody rapped on Johnson's door. This meant that there was no emergency; or at least, no emergency sufficient to require the presence of a surgeon.
Johnson turned another page, but the gleam of the sunlight near-dazzled him. He raised a hand to block the sunlight from his eyes, but the glare was abruptly extinguished before he could even raise his hand to the level of his eyes.
Johnson waved his hand in front of his face. The sunlight did not reappear.
He clambered to his feet; threw open the porthole and saw a wooden wall in front of him. It took it longer than he should have to realise that the wall was the side of a ship.
There was a thunderous sound, and a five-pound shot passed through the side of the Tryal, through Johnson's cabin, through the wall behind Johnson's cabin, and embedded itself in the carpenter's hammock. The gentleman in question was absent from his bed at the time, or it should have gone badly for all.
Johnson, who had fallen to the ground more from surprise than from any sense of self-preservation, peered through the hole the cannonball had left in its wake. He opened the wholly redundant door of his cabin, walked to the wall, and touched the shot. It was still warm.
He heard boots on the deck above his head, shots, and screams. Johnson had been long accustomed to the many sounds of screams. He went back into his cabin and scraped the dust from the lid of his medicine-chest. His porthole, he noticed, had been quite considerably enlarged.
He understood, much later, that the broadside that had wreaked so much destruction upon his cabin had been by way of a warning shot. The Tryal had surrendered within moments. Her crew, having failed to fight, had performed the smaller success of saving their skins. Johnson approved of both decisions. Neither ships nor men were easy to repair.
He checked his medicine-chest methodically, ordering his mind even as he brushed off each pot. Once he was satisfied that all was in order, opened his door and walked out onto the Tryal's deck.
Smoke hung in the air. Johnson heard footsteps on the deck overhead, and shouting. Still nobody summoned him. He wondered if he should hide, having presumably been overlooked, but there were precious little places to hide aboard a ship, and none that would not be easily discovered. Far better, he thought, to face his fate than have it thrust upon him.
He put his right foot on the bottom plank of the staircase that led to the upper deck and began to climb, confronting every step with trepidation. When he emerged on deck through the hatchway with dust on his coat, white-faced like Hamlet's ghost in the Theatre Royal at home, nobody noticed. To Johnson, it was like passing over the edge of the known world.
The strange ship he had spotted through the porthole was lashed to the Tryal with an assortment of ropes and large metal hooks. Rough-looking pirates crowded the deck and swarmed aboard the Tryal like rats aboard a freighter while her crew watched them sullenly. The pirates outnumbered the sailors by two men to one. They were armed to the teeth with cutlasses and pistols, and they looked as if they knew how to use them.
Johnson crept aside, and very bravely hid behind a mast. The position afforded him a good view of the proceedings while placing him conveniently out of harm's way, or at least out of immediate harm's way. Johnson studied the pirates as he had the tropicbird and tried to decide what he should do.
The pirates were a motley crew. Johnson saw a dozen nationalities, their origins obscured by a motley collection of rags, weaponry and gaudy jewels. There were Englishmen and Spaniards, Americans and Indians, black men and white. The scars that braceleted the wrists of many men marked them as convicts or ex-slaves. All of them were young, and most of them looked threatening. They parted like the waves as a man pushed his way through the crowd.
"Who are you?" he asked in a voice that was a curious mixture of Welsh lilt and London twang. "What's your harbour? From whence you came?"
Nobody answered. Johnson took the chance to study the pirate more closely. He was small and lean, with the tanned skin and sun-bleached hair of a white man who had spent long in the Indies. He wore a curious coat of military cut which belonged to no army Johnson had ever seen and looked as if it had dried upon his back. His eyes were yellow as bullion, and they examined the ship as if pricing it by the yard. Johnson drew back into shadow before the captain noticed him.
"HMS Tryal," Captain Anderson said reluctantly. "Late of Bristol," He sighed and looked around. "As you can see, we are no pirates."
"As you can see," the pirate said insolently, "we plainly are. I am Edward Kenway, captain of the Jackdaw. You have already met my crew. We are gentlemen of fortune, who have business with you."
Kenway frowned. "Yes. Have you a surgeon?"
"A surgeon!?" Captain Anderson exclaimed. Relief vibrated in his voice as he glanced around, searching the crew's faces. "Where is Johnson? Is he still below?"
Johnson was sorely disappointed in the captain, who he had thought not precisely a friend, but a good acquaintance. His heart sank into his boots. There was nowhere to go where the pirates or the crew might not find him in an instant. At least-nowhere aboard.
He risked a glance towards the sea. The ocean was a deep blue, shading to black at the centre. It did not look inviting. Johnson decided he preferred the uncertain fate of life aboard a pirate vessel to certain death by drowning.
He squared his shoulders and stepped out from the shadow of the mast, hoping to seem nonchalant, as if the presence of a boatload of pirates impressed him not at all. "Captain Anderson? You called me, sir. Here I am."
The captain began to speak but Kenway stopped him with a gesture. He crossed the pitching deck as easily as it was dry land, and gazed at Johnson with the speculative expression of a horse-trader.
"Any good?" he demanded.
Johnson had never thought to find his credentials questioned by a pirate. "Well, yes, I am-"
"I wasn't asking you." Kenway turned to the mutinous line of the Tryal's crew. "I'm asking you lot. Your surgeon any good? You can speak up. I won't bite."
"Mr Johnson has not had occasion to use many of his skills upon our journey," said Captain Anderson stiffly, "but I can assure you that he came with the very highest recommendations."
"Hmm." The pirate turned swiftly and paced back towards Johnson. "You speak Latin, mate? Had the advantage of a liberal education? Are you a competent man?"
Johnson wondered whether to reply. If he professed incompetence, it was quite possible that the pirates would shoot him and burn the Tryal to the waterline. If he told the truth, it seemed equally likely that he would be pressed into a life of piracy.
"Don't lie," said Kenway, as if he possessed the gift of telepathy. "I can tell. Answer, man, and quickly. I don't have much time. Nor," he added, spinning a pistol around his forefinger, "much patience."
Johnson settled for the truth. "I'm a Cambridge man. Had some experience on ships, and in the Spanish wars. I can speak Latin, and saw a leg as well."
He watched the captain consider this short list of accomplishments. The pirate glanced to Johnson, and back to his ship, which, Johnson realised, was in surprisingly good shape for a pirate vessel.
"You'll do," the captain said at last. You'll have to. My crew is in need of a surgeon. Agree, and I shall let this ship pass unharmed. Refuse and I will kill you all."
"He'll agree," said Captain Anderson swiftly, before Johnson had time to reply.
In the silence, Sub-Lieutenant Stevens swore that he would see Kenway hanged. The pirate sighed. Without turning, he drew a pistol from his sash, looked Johnson dead in the eye and shot Stevens in the foot. He waved away the smoke, replaced the pistol, and rolled his shoulders, cracking his knuckles one by one as Stevens rolled on the deck.
"Correction," he said. If his eyes were a wolf's eyes, now his smile was a wolf's grin. "I've changed my mind. If you refuse, I'll kill your shipmates one by one, and leave you standing."
"You didn't have to do that!" Johnson snapped, aghast. He had to raise his voice to carry over Stevens' screams. The sub-lieutenant clutched his foot as blood soaked into the Tryal's deck.
Kenway shrugged. He seemed completely unconcerned by the screaming. Johnson supposed that if he had been, he would hardly have shot the man. "If I didn't shoot a man now and again, they would forget what I am."
"May I have leave to treat my shipmate before I board?" Johnson asked bitterly.
"If you must," Kenway said. "It's only a flesh wound."
"How do you know?"
"I hit what I aim at," said Kenway. "Fetch your instruments."
Johnson nodded automatically. His mind was already on the bandaging, poulticing, and applications of ointment that Stevens' wound would need. He fetched his medicine chest and treated the lad in silence. He had nearly finished before another thought occurred to him."Captain?"
Both Kenway and Captain Anderson looked around. Kenway smacked the hapless Anderson around the head. "You're my crew, surgeon. You answer to me now. What is it?"
Johnson swallowed. "I ask for justice, sir. You would be doing me a favour by declaring to the crew and all the world the manner of me being forced."
Kenway sneered. "You're kidding."
"You are pirates, sir." Johnson pointed out. "The risk of capture, as I see it, is quite high. I have no wish to be hanged."
"You won't be." Kenway said as his crew snickered. "They won't catch us. Nobody catches the Jackdaw."
"Still-" Johnson protested.
"Jesus," Kenway growled. "It would be much easier to shoot you."
Johnson looked around theatrically at the wide expanse of clear blue sky and equally clear blue water surrounding them. Kenway's eyes narrowed. "I, Edward Kenway, Welshman and free pirate of the seas, do swear that I abduct this man against his will."Now come aboard." When Johnson did not move as fast as he would have liked, he turned to his crew. "Bring him, boys."
"Captain Kenway?" Johnson gasped as two burly pirates lifted him beneath his armpits and carried him like a particularly awkward piece of luggage over the side of the Tryal and onto the Jackdaw. "Why'd you need a surgeon, sir?"
He used the honorific out of habit. The captain of a ship was always 'sir' aboard his deck, be he pirate, privateer or honest man.
Kenway's eyes narrowed. "My quartermaster's wounded." His accent was clipped and more Welsh than ever. Johnson took the accent as a bad sign. The Welsh were notoriously touchy."He's pretty weak. It's your job to get him back on his feet and tend to my men in the meantime. Do that," he smiled, "and I'll maybe let you go." He nodded to the burly pirates holding Johnson, who released the surgeon's arms suddenly. Johnson staggered as his heels hit the deck, but kept his feet.
"Show me the man," he said.
Kenway raised an eyebrow. "You're keen. That's good."
Johnson shook his head. "If your man's hurt badly enough you have to hunt down Navy vessels for a doctor, then logic tells me that he needs a surgeon badly."
"I wouldn't put too much store in that," Kenway snapped. "We like to hunt the Navy. But yes, he needs a surgeon. I'll take you to him." He turned, silently, and quick as a flash. "Bring Johnson's medicine chest, Massey."
A pirate came forwards and hefted Johnson's medicine chest onto his shoulder as if it weighed nothing. Johnson followed the captain below decks, his mind already running through what he might find. All ships were prone to sickness, but a pirate ship might have far more than her fair share of cutlass and pistol wounds.
Kenway shoved him into a narrow cabin and Johnson saw his patient for the first time. He had expected the pirate to be badly hurt. They'd hardly have gone to the trouble of pressing him otherwise. He had not expected to find the man so weak he was barely alive.
Johnson knelt down beside the man's bunk and pressed shaking fingers to his pulse. The pirate's skin, which should by rights have been black, was the shade of a dead shark's hide. His pulse was good, although faster than Johnson would have liked, and his breathing was likewise rapid.
Kenway untied the man's dressings with a gentleness that Johnson had not expected from the man. The bandage was soaked with pus and fluid, and the flesh beneath was swollen. It was not so swollen, though, that Johnson could not see the bullet wound in the man's side as clearly as a wormhole in a ship's hull.
"Bullet's still in," said Kenway. "Reckon you'll be wanting to take that out."
The pirate groaned under the gentle press of his fingers. "Who is this?" he murmured in an accent that spoke as clearly of the palms and islets of the Indies as Kenway's did of the valleys. "Edward, what-"
Kenway put his hand on the sick man's shoulder in a gesture that could have been reassurance or restraint. "Adé, this is Johnson. His crew calls him a good surgeon. He's going to help you."
The pirate's eyes narrowed. The whites, Johnson noticed, were yellowed, like old ivory. It was not a good sign. "What are the odds?" he whispered, breath catching on every word as if it pained him.
"Never you mind," Kenway said. He turned to Johnson. "You've seen him. Do you have everything?
Johnson gestured for his chest. A pirate pushed it forward. Johnson raised the convex lid and began to sort through his tools. He laid out forceps, scalpel and scissors, and pulled a jar of alcohol from its drawer. He opened the jar and sniffed the liquid inside cautiously, hoping the crew of the Tryal had not drunk the alcohol and replaced it with water. The smell was still strong. If the men had watered it, then they'd not taken much.
"Have you a table?" he said, brushing hair from his eyes. "And water. I need hot water. And good light. And bandages. Clean ones."
"There's my cabin." Kenway snapped his fingers. "Massey, find some men to help you move Adé to my cabin. Bring Mr Johnson's chest. And tell the cook to heat some water."
If Johnson had ever had doubts about the competence of pirates, they were washed away in an instance. Four burly pirates lifted Adéwalé up bodily and carried him up two flights of stairs to the captain's cabin. Another pirate carried Johnson's chest, another brought a lantern, and a third brought a bucket of hot water and cotton swabs. Kenway swept the table clear of papers. Within an instant, all was ready.
Johnson washed his hands and lifted his lancet. Gesturing for the pirate who held the lantern to bring it closer, he bent over his patient's arm to check for a vein. The darkness of his patient's skin did not make the hunt an easy prospect.
Kenway, who had raised his boots to the other side of the table, swung them down with a clatter. "What in the Devil's name are you doing?"
Johnson frowned. "He needs to be bled."
"He's bled enough. Find the bullet. Clean the wound. Stitch it up, if it needs it. That's all."
"Still-" Johnson protested, dismayed to be confronted with such an old-fashioned way of thinking.
"Bleed him," Kenway said threateningly, "and I will bleed you."
Johnson looked at the pirate and at his lancet, and decided not to push the issue. The man was badly hurt. Chances were that he would die, despite all that Johnson did. He put his head down and got to work, sluicing alcohol into the wound while the man groaned, and scrubbing with salt water and coarse soap. Pus and scraps of tissue swirled like seaweed in the fluid as Johnson flushed them away.
"Have you a chaplain?" he asked as he readied his forceps. ""I have found a chaplain's services put men's mind at rest."
Kenway snorted. "Do your job right, we'll not need one. The men may swear upon the Bible, or the boarding axe. I don't much care which." He came to the front of the table and put a hand on the patient's shoulder. "It won't be long."
"Pardon me?" said Johnson, startled.
"I was talking to him," Kenway snarled. "Just get on and cut."
Johnson gritted his teeth and thrust the forceps home. The bullet wound had been enlarged by the pus and blood leaking from the wound. The tip of his instruments touched metal almost immediately, but removing the bullet was another matter. The patient groaned and struggled, gripping the edges of the tablet with such force Johnson thought it would splinter. He ordered the pirates without hesitation, placing each where he thought he would do the most good. They had ceased to be men, or pirates, or enemies. They were only allies in his struggle against the bullet that was mortifying his patient's flesh, and, for all Johnson knew, might kill him anyway.
He fished around for a moment without success. The patient cried out and surged up from the table as the pirates leaned on him to hold him down. It was entirely possible, thought Johnson, that if his patient survived the extraction of the bullet the pirates might injure him with their restraint.
"Cut, damn you," Kenway gasped. "We'll hold him."
Johnson held forceps so hard his knuckles whitened and dug deeply. He felt the tip of the forceps graze on metal, opened them wider, and plucked the bullet from its hole like a pearl from an oyster. A dribble of fresh blood ran from the wound and Johnson blotted it with a handful of clean cotton rags.
The remainder of the operation went well. Johnson flushed the wound, and cleaned it, and swabbed again with alcohol. He left the infected flesh open to drain and wrapped the shoulder in bandages, directing the pirates to support the man in the manner which would give him most relief. By the time had had finished the pirate was still alive. Johnson hoped with all his heart that he would remain so.
"The dressings will need changing tomorrow," he said as he washed his hands. He was surprised to see that a few of the pirates he had enlisted looked quite grey around the mouth and one, at least, was trying not to vomit.
Kenway, who did not look in the least bit sick, nodded. "Whatever he needs," he said. "Do you need more supplies?"
Johnson did a quick mental inventory of his medicine chest, "Not yet," he said, then, hastily, realising what the pirate might have in mind and not the least wish to see other unfortunate vessels meet the Tryal's fate, said "No-not at all. Really."
Kenway grinned sharply. "Just say the word," he said. "Where should he rest?"
"Can he stay here?" Johnson asked.
"For sure," Kenway said. "He can have my bunk tonight. We'll find you a berth with the crew."
"I'll sleep here on the floor." Johnson said. "I can keep my eye on him that way. I'll need to clean my instruments, though, and he should have wine; and food if he wishes it, as soon as he wakes."
Kenway nodded. "I'll see it done." He gestured to one of the other pirates. "Thomas, show Mr Johnson to the deck to wash up."
Johnson nodded curtly and followed the pirate out, glancing back at his patient as he went. Thomas led him to the maindeck, where he was offered a bucket of seawater to sluice the blood from his hands and a shirt with a several holes to replace his soiled tunic. Johnson took both, with thanks, and tried not to think too hard about the poorly rinsed bloodstains on the linen. The sun was melting into the Caribbean waves by the time he rose to wipe his face. The black flag flew proudly above the Jackdaw's gilded sails.
Thomas loitered by the deck, chewing on a wad of tobacco and watching the sun set with more appreciation than Johnson would have expected from a pirate. "D'ye think he'll do?" he asked.
Johnson tipped the bloodstained water over the side of the ship. "It's a bad wound. Though I've seen men hurt worse survive."
"Captain will be sore if he dies," Thomas said. "Adé, he's the quartermaster for the crew. Does all those little jobs a captain finds beneath him. Now Captain Kenway's a rare one for the treasure, but it's Adéwalé who keeps him on an even keel. Crew will miss him, if he goes."
"Then I hope that he survives," said Johnson. He doubted he would see another sunrise if the patient did not live. Although it was true that he'd seen men hurt worse do well, he had also seen men with smaller wounds do very poorly.
The pirate snorted. "I'll just bet you do," he said, clapping Johnson on the shoulder. "Come on. Let's find you a berth."
By morning, Adéwalé was still alive. By evening, he had taken a little rum, and some biscuit, and lay propped up by pillows like a king in the wide bunk in the captain's cabin. By the time three days had passed it became clear that he would live. Johnson spent most of his time in the cabin with Adéwalé, and the rest treating the pirates for the clap or rheumatism and trying to refuse the small gifts of rum or ivory or fruit they pressed upon him in return.
By the time he returned to the cabin on the morning of his fourth day aboard, blinking and trying unsuccessfully to erase the images of untreated venereal disease from his mind, the quartermaster had recovered enough to ask "Why are you here, Mr Johnson?"
Johnson shrugged. "Your captain pressed me from my ship. Besides, what was I to do? Let you die?"
"Some would have."
"Not me. I treated men of both sides in the Spanish wars. I'd like to think another man would do the same for me."
"It's lucky Kenway found you," Adéwalé observed. His voice was weak as watered rum, but his breathing was deep and considerably easier than it had been.
"Your Captain has the luck of the Devil," Johnson said. "As do you." He tried to take his patient's pulse, but Adéwalé pushed his hand away and drew out a deck of cards.
"A devil maybe-in a fight," he said as he began to deal, "but a good captain." "What think you of piquet, Mister Johnson?"
"I've no objection to it," Johnson said. He took the hand that the pirate dealt him, sighed, and drew replacements from the makeshift table on Adéwalé's bed.
Johnson bit back his instinctive retort of 'Thieves and villains' "What do you think of them?" he countered childishly.
Adéwalé's wide face furrowed. "We're no worse than any rich men," he said. His dark eyes flicked to Johnson. "The rich rob poor men under the cover of law, while we plunder the rich under no cover but our own courage."
The sentiment was not a common seaman's. It sounded very like rebellion to Johnson's ears."I've heard rumours of a pirate republic," he said. "In Nassau."
"And rumours are all it will be," Adéwalé said. "Pirates do not work well together, Mister Johnson. Like your medicine, we're best in small doses. But effective" He smiled. "We could sorely use a surgeon. Mayhap you're the right man for the job."
"I think not," Johnson said carefully. He knew the pirates could do much worse. Many ship's doctors were more sailor that surgeon, and more charlatan than both. He'd met men who would replace their medicine chest by adding vials three and two together to replenish vial five. The pirates were pleasant enough, and much more hospitable than he had expected. He might have been tempted if he hadn't known the fate awaiting them on Execution Dock.
Adéwalé snorted. "Kenway won't keep you unwilling. You've done him a favour so he'll try to see you right."
"Do you really think so?" Johnson asked in surprise. He had guessed Kenway would try to keep him aboard if Adéwalé survived, but he hadn't expected to have a choice in the matter.
"I know so," said Adéwalé. "If that's what you want, don't take his money. Keep asking and he'll grant your favour. The man does have a conscience, be it a small and miserable one."
"Hm." Johnson studied his cards and laid them down.
"Not what you expected?" Adéwalé said.
"I find I've lost my taste for piquet," confessed Johnson.
"I didn't mean the cards." Adéwalé's smile flashed diamond-brightly as he laid down a perfect series of twelve tricks one by one. "I meant the pirates. Strange land isn't it, the Indies, where fish fly and the birds speak like men, and pirates are honest in their promises? You should ask."
"I'll certainly ask," said Johnson.
But as the Jackdaw drew closer to land, he never found the opportunity. Kenway spent long hours closeted with Adéwalé in his cabin as the quartermaster grew stronger. He spent the rest of his time poring over charts or practising at swordplay with an effectively vicious grace that had Johnson admiring his skill even as he feared for his life. The pirates' ailments diminished, and to occupy his time Johnson found a notebook in the plunder and began again to record his impressions of life at sea. He had long since abandoned the shanties. Now he leant upon the mast in the bright Caribbean sun and began a journal.
Life aboard a Pirate Vessel, he wrote, is not what I expected.
The Crew is not as disciplined as a Naval Vessel, but Neither is it Sloppy. The Pirates appear Well Fed, and Well Rested. The Pirate Captain has absolute power in Battle, when Fighting, Chasing or being Chased, but is in all other matters governed by the general majority of the crew, who have a Code of Honour and a set of Articles that every man must Sign.
The pirate Edward Kenway, commander of the Jackdaw, is a middle size'd man of fair complexion, inclined towards a churlish constitution, and apt when in drink to utter some words of his Welsh tongue...
He glanced up as a shadow fell across the paper, heart seizing, and relaxed as he found it was only a pigeon. He had not thought they were so close to land.
He is most frequently found with a Cutlass in one Hand and a Pistol in the other. Although he is the Captain, I find his True Profession lies Elsewhere, for he is cursed Dangerous with any Weapon.
The pigeon seemed to have no inclination to flee. It was exceeding tame, and cooed as Johnson stretched out a hand to ruffle its glossy feathers. It had, he noticed, a note strapped to its leg. The paper was loosely fastened. Johnson untied the scrap of leather that secured the message, and glanced down at the crabbed handwriting.
For the eyes of Edward Kenway, it read,
The right hand man of a powerful slave trader is believed to be headed towards the Matanzas plantation at Salt Key Bank. He deals in shady business. Find the target and kill him.
Your friends in Nassau, the Assassin's Guild.
Johnson read the paper with mounting disbelief. The pigeon fluttered into the air, leaving Johnson with the parchment and a rising sense of guilt. He took the message to the railing and peered at the parchment, hoping to decipher a hidden clue. There was nothing apart from a faint sketch of an 'A' on the paper, a sigil, Johnson realised that he'd seen before in Kenway's cabin.
Johnson jumped and dropped both parchment and journal over the side of the ship. Kenway stood behind him, hands in the pockets of his coat. He raised an eyebrow at Johnson's obvious surprise. "A moment of your time?"
Johnson nodded. Kenway clapped him at the shoulder and halted, gazing at the journal that still floated, pages spread, on the surface of the sea.
"Was that important?"
"N-No." Johnson stuttered.
Kenway shrugged and beckoned Johnson into the captain's cabin, which had been tidied somewhat since its sojourn as a sickroom. The windows were dimmed by layers of salt-spray, and the room's low ceiling gave it a cavernous and faintly sinister aspect. Johnson accepted a chair, wondering all the while if Kenway would tear him limb from limb. Instead, the captain sat down opposite and smiled.
"It looks like Adé will make a full recovery, Mister Johnson. That's work well done, and I like to reward those who work for me." He pushed a small velvet pouch across the table towards Johnson. "Your compensation."
Johnson folded his arms. "I don't treat men for reward, Captain Kenway."
Kenway shoved the pouch closer. It chinked as it slid across the table. "No doubt you don't," he said, "but it helps."
Johnson clasped his palms together against temptation. "I cannot take pirate treasure," he said firmly, remembering Adéwalé's advice.
Kenway snorted. "I have none of any other kind," he said. "Do me a favour by accepting."
"If you will do me one by accepting my refusal," Johnson said. "If you could see your way instead towards dropping me at the nearest port, I'd be forever in your debt."
"You wouldn't thank me for leaving you in Nassau," Kenway said. "It'll have to be Kingston. That'll take me out of my way. Then there's the Navy to consider. Crew won't like that. Take the coin."
"I can't accept the wages of sin," Johnson said firmly.
"The wages of sin?" Kenway laughed. It was not a pleasant laugh. "You are a devilish conscientious bastard. Life aboard a pirate ship might be just the thing. Teach you not to be so fussy."
"Regardless," Johnson said. "I must refuse. You're pirates, sir. Renowned for plunder, rape and pillage. You kill men and burn vessels. He slid the pouch back towards Kenway and saw with dismay that the pirate made no move to take it. "I can't condone that."
Kenway regarded him with a jaundiced eye. "You don't have to. You shouldn't believe all you hear. We don't burn the ships. They're worth far too much."
Johnson got the feeling he was being gently mocked. "Set me ashore," he said quietly.
"I need you here."
"I must insist. Else I won't treat the men willing."
"I could make you willing," Kenway said. "I've found a match applied between the fingers does wonders for a man."
"I'll send a message to the Navy," Johnson said. "In a bottle, if I must. Tell them what I know."
"What you know?" Kenway grinned. "Pirates change. Our ships, our crews, our hunting grounds. What information you can tell them will be out of date within a month. You might as well tell them we piss fire and fart brimstone."
Johnson took a deep breath and played his last card. "Aren't you worried I'll tell the Navy what I know of the Assassins?" he said.
Kenway sat motionless for a moment. His hand ducked below the table. Johnson, expecting at every moment to be blown to smithereens, sat very, very still.
"What do you know of the Assassins?" Kenway said at last in a soft and dangerous voice.
"Nothing but a letter I intercepted by mistake," Johnson said. "But it seems to me like a thing you'd rather have hidden. I must say that the Indies seems a strange place to find Assassins. I'd have expected them in Italy, or in Marco Polo's secret mountain fortresses. Not here in the sun."
"You'd be surprised," Kenway growled.
"So it's true-"
The pirate slouched back in his seat. "Johnson, nothing is true, and everything is permitted. Were I not certain you know nothing of what you speak, I'd shoot you like a dog."
Johnson carefully focused on the first part of the sentence. "That sounds like a quote," he murmured.
"Maybe," said Kenway. "Look. There's more here than it seems. There's some wrecks not worth diving on. Trust me."
"Not really," said Johnson reflexively.
Kenway laughed. "Good man. You may speak of pirates, Johnson, I won't forbid you that. But tell tales of the Assassins and you will one day find yourself on the wrong end of a very sharp knife."
"The Navy-" Johnson said.
"Won't save you. Besides, the Navy are in Kingston, Johnson, and I am here."
"Not threats. Promises. Think of that."
"I'll certainly will." Johnson said.
Kenway gave him a long look. "Good lad. I'm grateful for you for fixing Adéwalé, truly. I owe you more than you know. I'll take you to Kingston, Mister Johnson. And I may not be able to ensure you live a long and happy life, but I can make damn sure you have a short and miserable one if you ever once mention Assassins or the name of Edward Kenway in the same breath. Understand?
"Perfectly," Johnson managed.
Kenway grinned like an angel who had fallen from heaven with some force. "Do we have a deal, Johnson?"
Johnson swallowed and shook Kenway's hand. As he pulled his palm away he found himself holding the pouch of coins. He chose to trust the pirate's promise just as he'd trusted his threat, but he felt rather like he'd dealt with the devil. "You promise that you will drop me-put me-on the dock at Kingston, alive and unharmed?" he said cautiously.
Kenway spat on his hand and held it out again. ". I keep my promises, Mister Johnson," he said as they shook for the second time. "All of my promises." And he pressed the bag of coins into Johnson's hand, and smiled.
Kenway was as good as his word and considerably better than his reputation. Three weeks later the Jackdaw set Johnson on the quay at Kingston and sailed off into legend. Johnson found himself alone in a strange land, with a handful of stolen silver and a few good stories to tell.
He never went back to the Navy. Instead he settled in Kingston for a while, treating the settlers and keeping an ear open for tales of pirate gold. The Jackdaw had long since sailed from the sea and into story by the time he took passage back to England, working his way from port to port and gathering tales of pirates as he travelled.
There were few tales about Kenway. People preferred the stories of Anne Bonny and Mary Read, of Teach with the burning matches under his hat, and of Rackham, who would not have been hanged like a dog if he had only fought like a man. A scruffy Welsh pirate and his motley crew was not the type to capture the imagination of the public. They wanted tales of buried treasure, and since none of them had existed, Johnson did his best to make some up.
He wrote of murder and heroism, sabre battles and dashing sailors on the high seas. His tales sold well enough for him to rent a room in a portside inn at Bristol. By the time Johnson began work on the book that would make his fortune; he had a small house of his own. Johnson had no idea whether Kenway or his crew were dead or alive. He had not heard of the Jackdaw in years.
He thought of the Indies' sunlit sky as he pulled a sheet of parchment towards him and began to write.
"A General History of the Pyrates, from their first Rise and Settlement to the present Time, by Mr. Charles Johnson.
As the Pyrates in the West-Indies have been so formidable and numerous," he scrawled, "We do not doubt that the World will be curious to know the Original and Progress of these Desperadoes, who were the Terror of the trading Part of the World."
He wrote of Rackham and Teach, Anne Bonny and Mary Read, of buried treasure and sea-battles and walking the plank. He left Kenway out entirely, although he found himself borrowing small details here and there. When at last he had done, he read the first page. Then he paused, struck out the author's name, and wrote 'Captain Charles Johnson', feeling that it gave the account a little more authenticity.
The book, of course, was a best seller.
As for Johnson, he heard from Kenway only once. One grey December day, when the mist rose thickly from the water and the masts of the ships crowded into Bristol's narrow and muddy harbour were so tightly packed they resembled a forest, Johnson found a note pushed through his door. The paper was very fine, the handwriting, nearly illegible.
'Congratulations,' it read, "on the recent publication of your Book. The Pirate Age lasted a mere Handful of Years, but your Pirate Tales shall last a Lifetime. Your Words have turned a ragged band of Fortune Hunters into Heroes out of Legend. More importantly, they have Confused Anything regarding the Truth. This is in all Accordance with our Order, the Tenets of which, is to Hide in Plain Sight.
I compliment you on your Circumspection, Sir. May you live a Most Long and Profitable Life.
Edward Kenway, Gentleman & Assassin, Formerly of the Indies)
Johnson gathered from the letter that the pirate had done well for himself, because he wasn't asking for money. He turned the letter over and read the postmark, which was of Bristol, and wondered whether Kenway would have done such a thing merely to misdirect him.
He never heard from Kenway again. Three months after the letter, when he nearly had forgotten the wording-but not, as it turned out, the veiled threat contained in the last line, Johnson saw a well-dressed gentleman at the opera, with blond hair pulled back into a tail, and a coat of a vaguely military cut. He walked with a tall lady and a little brown-haired boy, and winked as he passed Johnson, crossing the room as swiftly as a brig with all sails set and the wind behind her. They were almost gone before Johnson made the connection and stopped dead. He whirled and turned again to look, but the family had passed on to take their seats, and Johnson found that he could not easily pick them out of the crowd.
Was it possible, he thought as he moved to take his own seat; that a pirate could become a gentleman so completely that a man of good breeding could not pick him out of a crowd of well-dressed men?
Johnson turned for the last time and raked his gaze across the crowd.
Surely not, he thought as he took his seat and the first lines of the chorus began to play.
"Bring the little fishes
Bring the sharks
Bring 'em from the brightness
Bring 'em from the dark..."
This whole story is a shameless play on the hidden authorship of one of the most famous pirate books-and primary sources of pirate lore-Captain Charles Johnson's A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates. This sensationalised account contains the lives of many famous pirates, not including Edward Kenway, and a few that the author probably made up. It's also where we get a great many pirate tropes-the idea of walking the plank and buried pirate treasure. As there is no Captain Charles Johnson ever listed, the name must have been a pseudonym.
The Tryal was a real Navy sloop stationed in Jamaica around the time this story is set. The Jackdaw is of course fictional, as is the Marianne.
The shanty of the parson's daughter is 'Fire Down Below," a song about venereal disease, although the version I've used is sung by Nick Cave.
Assassin's Creed belongs to Ubisoft, and any errors are of course, entirely my own.
A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates, by Captain Charles Johnson.
A Worldwide Illustrated History of Pirates: Terror on the high seas: from the Caribbean to the South China Sea. Edited by David Cordingly
Pirate hunter of the Caribbean: the adventurous life of Captain Woodes Rogers, by David Cordingly
The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, by Daniel Defoe.
The Republic of Pirates: being the true and surprising story of the Caribbean pirates and the man who brought them down, by Colin Woodard.
Treasure Island: RL Stevenson
The Sugar Barons: Matthew Parker