It was time to act.
Jane pulled sharply on the leather strap which held her sword. In a single movement, she fixed her bow and quiver in her back. Confidently, she slipped her knife in her boot after making sure it was sharp enough. Finally, she raised her eyes on Hook.
He had no choice but to accompany her. Certainly, he would be released and freed only once this buisness was over. To Hook, that mission in which his holder was engaged in was nothing else but a game; the indian's fate didn't matter to his eyes. To lose was a sad outcome, assuredly, but he would know who to move past it; there wasn't much at stake to him. But the way the young Jane was preparing to the confrontation to come revived his taste for adventure, which he badly needed. Suddenly, to lose gained a whole new meaning, much heavier than to lose some gold coins gambled during alcoholic nights. Now, Hook was going double or quits. Oh, how the blood in his veins seemed to vivify!
He didn't entrust Jane with these sentiments on their way to the captive. She would have payed little, if none, attention to it. Her burning gaze was only fixed onto one thing: the Dead Man's Creek. Was she thinking about the other deaths that were to happen in this place?
Suddenly, he stopped.
''Shh. Careful, now. We are almost there.'' Jane and him would now progress guardedly.
''I know that. What's our plan of attack?''
''Plan of attack? I absurdly thought that you had taken care of the plannification. I am but your humble – and captive – guide.'' Hook couldn't help but to be willingly irritating whenever he had the chance. Piracy, amongst other things, tended to do that to a man. Jane had to refrain from groaning of frustration. Passing a weary hand onto her face, she inhaled deeply three times before resuming.
''Very well. Let's try to get closer and to analyse the site before we do anything else.''
The path that the young woman and the pirate followed allowed them to have a perfect view upon the entry of the cave. Installed on a hill a few meters away from the place of the action, they hid behind bushes before starting to analyse the situation. Then Talutah appeared to Jane. The young girl was sitting, her hands and feet tied, guarded by two pirates at the entrance of the cave.
''It is most probably Sharp Will and Crazy Max... Two men belonging to Bowen's crew.'' Hook allowed this information to reach Jane before continuing. ''If the allies of the organizer of the competition are still here and alive, we can suppose than we have arrived before the two other competitors.''
''I can take care of two men. But if there's any other guards –'' Bad thing to say. At this instant, two other men came out of the cave. The first man was a short but stocky one, a saber and sword on each of his sides. The second one, more stately and impressive, tatooed from head to toe but pale as death, was undoubtedly the captain of The Red Witch, Matthew Bowen, obviously ready to fight to keep his hostage. Heavy golden jewels suspended to his ears jingled with every step he took. Jane fixed the man whom she analysed quickly as being the most dangerous one. So that was he, the man who had the idea of this sick competition; the one who had captured Talutah.
But a man who also participated to this insane contest – and most joyfully – was at her side. She repressed the disgust that Hook inspired to her at this precise instant. She needed him, but couldn't admit it out loud. Not as long as she could avoid it.
''Four men, then. I can put down two of them from here with my bow. By the time the two others arrive, I could maybe even get a third one. And I take care of the last one hand to hand.'' Jane announced her plan most determined but Hook repressed a disdainful scoff.
''Oh, Jane. Jane, I had no idea you cared so little for life.'' She didn't answer, but her eyes shot fire at him. ''Come, come, let us be realistic – I am certain that you are most precise with that little bow of yours you got from the indians –''
''Do you want the proof of that, pirate?''
''– But you will never be fast enough to shoot a second arrow once you hit the first man. And believe me, these men are fast; they know their ground. They will be upon us before you get the chance to ready your bow a second time.''
He was right. That damned pirate was right; even if she was rather accurate, the speed was something she did not master yet. And as for the hand to hand combat, she actually didn't want to think about it too much. She was ready, but against three pirates at the same time? Now she was doubting her own capacities. Jane sighed heavily. There it was; she couldn't avoid it any longer.
''What are you suggesting, guide?'' Hook gave her a pawky smile.
''Free me. I could lend you a hand... A single hand, surely, but a helpful one.'' It was Jane's turn to repress from expressing all of her disdain.
''I suppose you can imagine why I am not particularly warming up to that idea.''
''Certainly. But, on the other hand...'' He stopped, got closer to Jane. ''… what other choice do you have?''
Jane swallowed but supported his gaze. Just as he supported hers. There wasn't any other way; she knew it, and had always known it. The captain's help was the only one she had. Unfortunatly, she needed it to save her friend; friend who's only family loathed pirates entirely.
Slowly, so slowly, she slipped her knife out of her shoe. All was silent. Hook didn't move; he only watched her movements. Bringing her blade to his bounds, she suddenly stopped. She tried to ignore all doubt and all fear concerning the consequences of her acts.
''Hook...'' Jane paused, and fixed intensly the pirate, almost begging. ''Please, tell me I am not mistaken to trust you.''
All traces of smiling had vanished from the captain's features. All that remained were the piercing blue eyes, answering silently to Jane's question.
In a single and sharp gesture, she cut his bounds.
For an instant, Hook only contemplated his limbs, now free. But then he looked up to Jane, a rictus forming at the corner of his lips. Jane forgot how to breathe, frozen.
''Well? What are we waiting to save your Talutah?''
And Jane had to refrain from laughing out of relief.
''Very well'' she started while handing back to him – with some regrets – his sword. Hook welcomed it with a frank smile, as if he welcomed back an old friend. ''I suggest that you go around the hill and suprise them from behind, and attack hand to hand. Of course, it would be better to attack –''
''– only once you have started to shoot arrows at them'' completed Hook. ''A most common technique, yet a reliable one.''
Jane gave him a faint smile and shook her head to agree, before looking back at their ennemies. Two of them had gone back into the cave, including Matthew Bowen. She would have wanted him to be his first target, but she'd have to do otherwise. Sliding her bow from her shoulders and pulling out an arrow, she drew a deep breath. Her position was rather advantageous, but... It was her first experience of real and planified fighting. This, she couldn't admit it to Hook and could only hope she would do her best.
The captain glanced at Jane a last time. The young woman was obviously lacking of experience. How did she even manage to survive on her own since she left the Jolly Roger? Sweat was runnning along her temple and her hands were almost trembling as she bended her bow. But in her eyes, one could read the purest determination. Lips narrowly closed, she breathed slowly, ready to act. Something in Hook almost made his heart skip a beat. Not saying a word, he quickly slithered throught the forest's shadows and left to rejoin the cave.
Jane was alone. In the anticipation of the conflicts, her senses seemed to increase. She could feel the wind on her face to the most extreme degree; the contact of the dirt on her skin was almost welcoming, reassuring. Without realising it, she suddenly felt whole; she was one with the elements around her. She was ready, she understood. Far off, she caught sight of Hook sliding along the rocks of the cave. Her arm reaffirmed her hold on the bow's string. She adjusted her aim on the pirate – Crazy Max – to Talutah's left.
A breath. And the arrow flew through the air.
The pirate ramed the ground in a loud thud that Jane almost didn't hear. The man laid on the soil, hunched, his hands on the arrow planted in his leg; only his painful scream brought Jane back to her senses. Quickly, she drew another arrow and got ready as Hook came into action.
He reached the second pirate before he even knew where the attack was coming from. The sword flung through the air and cut the man in his side. Before leaving him the chance to parry the attack, Hook had already knocked him unconscious with his sword hilt. Had Jane been standing close to the action, she would have heard the crashing of some teeth as he fell to the ground. He carelessly kicked the pirate's body out of the way and got ready to attack the third pirate. Jane braced herself for the arrival of Matthew Bowen, who soon came out of the cave, alarmed by the chaos reigning outside. More menacing than ever, the pirate seemed happy to finally be able to fight somebody. His teeth glistened and his eyes gleamed with pure viciousness.
She steadied her bow and shot, fast, too fast. A second arrow flew across the air... To crash against a rock a few feet away from the captain of The Red Witch.
She was discovered. The piercing evil eyes of the pirate spotted her immediately and her blood seemed to freeze in her own veins. She only had two more arrows. She took one out, in a single breath, as Bowen headed towards her. Only a few more meters...
She did not choose to be merciful, like with the other pirate. She did not have the time nor the luxury for that. The arrow headed straight towards her ennemy's face; for half a heartbeat, she thought she had won. But the captain bended just at the right time; the arrow struck a target, ending its course in a pirate's back – the pirate whom Hook was fighting. But Matthew Bowen was still alive, and more furious than ever. An axe in one hand, a knife in the other, he was heading decidedly towards Jane. She wasn't out of arrows but out of time. She could only flee.
She rolled out of her hiding spot and circled the side of the hill, putting as much distance between Bowen and her. She only had her knife, so she ran to the pirate still screaming out of pain because of the arrow stuck in his leg to steal his sword. Now, she should rely on the hand to hand combat... Even if she wished more than ever to avoid it. Bowen was obviously an experimented fighter; she could see it from the many scars covering his arms, regardless of his numerous tattoos.
The pirate's saber was caught in his many belts; Jane pulled, panicked, trying to get it out, in vain. She was losing any hope to get it when she heard behind her the sound of a weapon slicing through the air. Giving up the saber, she rolled on her side, Bowen's axe striking down violently on the ground, at the exact same place Jane was half a second ago. The axe was extracted from the ground and fell onto her once again; Jane avoided it one more time. But she couldn't keep on going like this for long. She was on the ground, without any weapon to counteract his ennemy's, and as long as she couldn't get up, she was vulnerable. The axe was raised up in the air a third time. Jane nearly closed her eyes... But heard the sound of metal going against metal.
Hook had come hand to hand with Bowen. Jane rolled out of their fighting zone to rush to Talutah and undo her bounds. Once freed, the young indian threw herself into her arms, tearing up, murmuring thanks in her native language as Jane was trying to catch her breath.
In front of her, the two captains were fighting restlessly, axe against sword, but also punching, biting, kicking each other. Jane broke the embrace to look at Talutah, making sure she was well. But at this instant, an horrified look seized the young girl's features, staring at something behind Jane. Before she could even realize it, Talutah had taken the knife from Jane's hands. In a single and assured motion, she propelled the knife which struck its traget in a smack, followed by the sound of a body hitting the ground. Jane turned around to see a last pirate, a few feet away from her, the knife planted between his eyes, his own saber slipping from his hand to fall on the ground in a loud clink.
An ultimate sound of metal was heard; the sound, almost musical, of a sword sliding against skin, cutting flesh. Matthew Bowen, undone, collapsed on the ground, last ennemy of this battle. Jane and Talutah stared at Hook – the rage upon his face, his red eyes blending with the scarlet smeared onto his features. None said a word, and only the whining of Crazy Max broke the silence. Hook was approaching him when Jane percieved movement behind the captain – a fast but silent movement.
From the forest hastened a man, his tomahawk headed straight towards the captain's skull.
Jane didn't think. With a bound, she leaped onto the pirate and pushed him away bluntly, to deviate him from the deathly circle traced by the indian's axe. It swept close to her own head. Hook, now aware of the danger, was already getting up, ready to counter attack.
A cry resounded in the creek. Talutah rushed to the indian, stopping his arm. Hook and Jane remained frozen in front of the scene, only capable of observing.
''Brother, I forbid you to harm this man. He saved me, and saved Jane, our friend.'' Jane recognized the indian, no other than Aketcheta, the hunter from Lily's tribe. He seemed rather skeptical and protested immediately.
''I personally recieved from our chieftain the order to get rid of this pirate once you would be out of harm's way'' he responded, designating Hook. Jane took this information like a blow to her heart. This was why Lily had allowed her to leave so easily when she had refused to kill Hook. She had found someone else to execute this task.
''Talutah, you know you cannot trust pirates'' he added. ''And you wouldn't disobey our leader.'' Aketcheta's tone was supposed to be compliant, but the hate he vowed to pirates could be felt within every inch of his being. However, Talutah had not said her last word.
''Our leader is most of all my sister, whom I know to be sometimes irrational and unjust. Refuse to execute her order won't deshonor you. I command you to put away your weapon and to bring me back to the clan. Enough blood has been spilled today.''
The silence seemed to extend forever in the electrified atmosphere of the group. The young indian and Hook eyed each other scornfully for a long time. Jane swallowed hard. Finally, after much hesitation, Aketcheta finally put back his tomahawk in his belt and crossed his arms in front of him. He wouldn't forgive Hook, but had to respect Talutah's choice, or would have suffered the retaliation of her sister and leader. Without wanting to show it, Jane felt more relieved than she should have been.
''Thank you, Brother.'' As to Talutah, she didn't hesitate to show her relief and joy for being heard. ''I would like to speak with Jane for a moment. You can go back to the forest, I'll be back soon.'' Aketcheta nodded solemnly and regained the forest, but didn't forget to eye scornfully at Hook one last time, whom replied by lightly touching his temple in a mocking salutation. Jane and her friend walked a few steps away from the remaining carnage as the captain blithely picked the pockets of the victims.
''Jane, I could never thank you enough for what you did. If you come back to the camp with me, I'll make sure you'll be covered with honor which you greately earned.'' Jane blushed but quicky refused.
''You know you're exaggerating... Besides, I'm not the only one who delivered you.'' She glanced faintly at Hook and seized the opportunity to change the subject, talking about honors making her feel uncomfortable. ''There, you've met the terrible captain Hook'' she carried on, lower. ''So, what about his pointy teeth, his eyes that shoot fire?'' she said, winking teasingly to her friend. It was Talutah's turn to blush.
''You were right, I've been silly to believe this nonsense...'' Then, unable to refrain herself, she added: ''Besides, your description was rather accurate... Except you forgot to precise that he didn't lack charm, for a pirate!''
Jane looked dumbfounded and embarassed for an instant, but then allowed herself to giggle like a schoolgirl with Talutah. She had been missing her.
Farther, Hook heard the laugh of the young girls as he pulled the purse of gold from Sharp Will's belt. He contemplated the young indian, but most of all, Jane. Decidedly, Hook wasn't sure he recognized himself anymore. He had swore he would kill the impetuous brat as soon as he could... And what did he do? He saved her in the middle of a fight! What madness had seized him? He was used to skin and murder anyone at any time, especially people who had frustrated him. To see a bit more blood wouldn't have bothered him. Hook remained pensive for a while, visibly vexed by his own inconsistancy. Finally, he decided that saving her had been profitable, after all. Jane dead, the young indian would certainly not have stopped the tomahawk to slice his skull wide open. That's when Jane and Talutah came back to the captain. The young indian was the first to speak to him.
''Despite the conflicts between our tribe and the people of your... career, I most sincerly thank you for your efforts deployed today.'' Jane had avoided to tell her the truth about her kidnapping and the competition. Enough unpleasant things had happened already. Talutah then turned to Jane.
''I regret that you won't come back with me. Are you certain?''
''Yes. I need a little change of air, I believe. You know I don't like to linger for too long.'' Talutah smiled softly and assured she would always be welcomed in the tribe. The two friends parted kindly. Jane watched Talutah as she rejoined Aketcheta in the forest. After waving her a last goodbye, she found herself alone with Hook. Both of them carefully avoided any eye contact.
''Hook... Thank you for earlier.'' He didn't reply. She waited for a few instants, then, realising he wouldn't say a word, started to move away. Then, she heard a discrete throat clearing.
''I return the thanks, Jane.'' Without turning back, she couldn't help but allow a little smile to appear on her lips. He showed, after all, good form.
''So... Have you won the competition?'' She asked, despite her revulsion for that twisted game.
''It would appear that I have. This fifth and unexpected pirate –'' he designated the man with the knife still stuck between his eyes – ''was none other but the second competitor, who must have signed a pact with Bowen to unite against the two other participants.'' Seeing the shocked reaction on Jane's face, he added: ''Why, this kind of practices is most common in piracy, Jane. It was rather foreseeable.''
''What about the last competitor?'' asked Jane.
''Most likely captured by an indian tribe and put to death, I suppose. It is not of any importance to me.'' However, Jane got the impression that they had not stopped to hear about that captain. A sensation which she dismissed rapidly when she saw a purse of gold exceed from Crazy Max's pocket. She rushed to take it. Seeing Hook slightly suprised expression, she explained, a smile tugging at the corner of her lips:
''So what? One cannot live with pirates for a few months without picking up some of their bad habits.''
''And what would you do with that money, may I ask?''
Jane thought about it for an instant. To steal – no, to retrieve – money from ennemies was one thing; to spend it was another. She had lived from barter exchange with the different indian tribes for a long while and was used to be content with little. But now...
''Well, now that you know I'm alive, I guess I don't really have to hide anymore. I might as well spend this nice sum at the Pirate's docks. I think I'll go there immediately.'' She smiled. She could buy herself new clothes, books... Things she had denied herself for months.
Hook seemed hesistant. Seeing he wouldn't say why, Jane had to ask:
''What about you? Where will you be going, now?'' Clearly embarassed, Hook finally replied, with an annoyed tone:
''I was actually going to the docks as well, to celebrate this victory with my crew.''
''Oh.'' Jane understood where the annoyance came from. She replied, embarassed: ''On second thought, I might not go immediately, but maybe in a day or two...'' Truthfully, she had no other place to go and was dying for a hot bath, or even a comfortable bed. But she would rather avoid the embarassment of another trip with the captain, whom she obviously annoyed. However, this scene was ridiculous, she thought. They had just saved each other's lives, but they preferred to avoid each other, and maybe even never meet again? Also, to be sincere, she didn't really want to travel alone once more. So she changed her mind.
''You know what? I may seem inconstant, but what do you think about traveling together? The docks must be only one day away from here.''
Hook was taken by suprise. He didn't think her to be so persistant. She was offering on her free will to travel with him, him who nurtured the project to kill her because of her good form? This offer was both incredibly stupid and tempting. He didn't risk anything and could finally execute his plan. He accepted.
Jane and Hook left together towards the port after recovering their weapons – and some others. They did not notice the pirate observing them from afar, furious to have lost his opportunity to fortune and respect.