Craft's Gambit: Part II (a Virtuous Anne Radcliffe Story)
“Have you seen more of this cave system?” Anne asked the former captive once he was recovered enough to move on. “The tunnel we came through will be too small for you to fit, and the main cave entrance is guarded by those pirates who kidnapped you.”
Robert Hobbs shook his head. “They took me in through the main caverns. But this is not the type of cave that you may find a potential variety of entrances.”
“Why not?” she asked curiously.
The Marleybonean adjusted his spectacles. “Well, surely you saw that this was not a solution cave, where carbonate rocks are dissolved and re-formed by percolating water,” he began.
“Mmm,” Anne replied noncommittally, not understanding a word.
“Nor is it a lava-born cave,” he continued happily, warming to his subject. “No, this cave system bears all the hallmarks of the underground nest network of Myxinos petrificus.” He sighed. “It would be a lovely discovery under different circumstances.”
“What is this ‘mix-in-os’,” Anne asked warily.
“Myxinos petrificus bores through rock to make its dens. Part of the rock wall around the main den area must have been thinned enough to collapse, creating the large entrance. But that’s why the tunnels themselves are the same size, as the creatures don’t make their own tunnels until adulthood, only helping to enlarge the burrows -- these caverns-- as juveniles. The adults settle in their tunnels near the surface, remaining below until prey comes near. Physically, they somewhat resemble hagfish,” Robert added thoughtfully. “Feed like them too.”
Anne and Don Velasco exchanged an appalled look. Hagfish were nasty scavengers of the deep who did not necessarily wait for death to occur before burrowing into the unfortunate prey’s flesh with their rings of teeth to slurp the life out of their victims. The Marleybonean hastened to reassure them.
“Oh, there’s no Myxinos around here now. The clutch must have died out. Otherwise the caves and tunnels would be covered with the slime they secrete. A pity, as they are extraordinarily rare, possibly extinct.”
“Not that much of a pity, as otherwise they would eat us,” Anne reflected with an ironic lilt to her voice.
“Oh, I don’t think so. I believe we are too large for them. Well, no, your companion would be at risk. And if we were in their dens… hmm, I see your point.”
“But this does mean we will have to break through the guarded entrance,” Anne continued thoughtfully. “We’ll need a diversion. Let’s continue to near where the pirates are located. Then, Don Velasco, you double back and inform the others to mount an assault on the front. Keep note of how long it takes to get there, so that you give yourself enough time to join us before they begin the diversion. When the pirates are engaged in battle, we’ll just slip out from behind them.”
It did not take long to find their adversaries, and they quietly doubled back to stay out of sight and hearing. Velasco went on his way, and Anne and Robert settled down to wait.
“Why did this pirate captain kidnap you, anyway?” Anne asked quietly.
Robert shook his head. “I did not understand at first, either. I’m just a natural philosopher, seeking to understand Nature and Her workings. I am interested in many aspects of nature, but recently I became intrigued by the behavior of some peculiar metals.”
“Unlike the well known metals of silver, iron, gold, and so forth, in nature these metals are extremely unstable and require a sort of marriage with an opposite compound. This is, after all, like the longing of iron or silver for oxygen, giving us rust or tarnish, only more extreme. But when I was able to purify a small amount of one of the unstable metals, and introduce it to its opposing partner, the results were quite dramatic, giving a very fast, exothermic reaction.” His pleased look faded when he saw Anne’s look of polite blankness. “It went BOOM,” he clarified.
“Oh! So you invented a new explosive?” -Ratbeard would like that-, Anne thought.
“Well, I really only discovered what was already in nature,” Robert Hobbs demurred modestly. “My paper was well received by the Royal Academy of Natural Philosophy, and I gave a demonstration as proof of my work. The Spiral Geographic Society has also shown a pleasing interest.” The light dimmed from his face. “But apparently my work drew the attention of a certain Mr. Simon Craft, the pirate captain who had me abducted.”
Robert swallowed. “Mr. Craft thinks I can create explosives for him from my discovery. But I can’t! It took me a long time to purify the small amount of the soft metal, and to keep it pure enough to undergo the desired reaction. I can’t make large amounts, and I wouldn’t know how to create a device that would control the marriage of the opposites so that an explosion large enough to do harm would not blow up in your face. I tried to tell him this! But he just thought I was being… obstinate.” He shuddered, putting his hands to his face in distress.
Anne laid a gentle hand on his arm, meaning to comfort and reassure him, when a slight sound caught her attention. The touch quickly turned into a warning one. Robert stiffened, looking around nervously. Anne got to her feet, her sword and dagger at ready.
She scanned the cave. The opening much further ahead provided a dim light, so she had extinguished the lantern some time ago, so as not to draw any attention. Anne now realized uneasily that Robert’s voice had risen inadvertently in his agitation. Yet the activity noises of pirates had not changed; they weren’t coming deeper into the cave. Only… another sound, like a scrape against the wall. And, did she hear something else? Her nerves sharpened to an edge. Still, she couldn’t see anything.
“Mr. Hobbs,” Anne murmured very quietly, “let us move back farther into the cave.” The Marleybonean had already risen to his feet, and began to back into the deeper shadows.
Unfortunately, they had not gone many feet when Robert turned his ankle on a loose rock, tripped, and crashed into the cave wall. Anne moved forward instantly on the alert for attack, ready for a sweep if she needed to. Still. she heard no cries, no indication of an enemy alert.
“Are you all right?” she whispered.
“Yes. I’m so sorry,” Robert mumbled in acute embarrassment.
But was that another soft thud, partly obscured by his voice? Anne stood very still. For a long moment she heard nothing, then --yes!-- the sound of a scrape, made by something large. She quietly stepped towards the sound, hoping Robert would not move, scanning the unrevealing grey light and black shadows all around.
Something moving to the left caught her eye. Anne half turned, then some indefinable sense led her to swing her blades up to block the right side of her body. The clang of steel on steel rewarded her instinct, and she leaped to the side, trying to see her attacker, trying to lead him away from the innocent Mr. Hobbs.
For a moment she got a glimpse of something pale. Steel flashed out again, and she met it, reposting swiftly and being rewarded with a curse from her assailant. Robert Hobbs cried out, his precious book thudding to the ground, distracting her, and this time the other’s blade stingingly caught her own flesh. She retreated further into the grey light, hoping to draw her attacker to where she could see him but yet get out of the light herself as soon as possible. Her plan worked briefly: several more passes of blades occurred without harm to her.
Then -- nothing. The swordsman was gone, and she could neither see nor hear him. Anne warily stepped back deeper into the shadows, quietly as she could, trying to make her breaths as small as possible. Where was he? She was sure he had not just run off. Her nerves tingled with anxiety. Every sense attuned to the danger somewhere nearby.
But when the danger came, her senses gave her no warning. Someone seized her right arm and twisted it behind her back: it seemed as if the shadows themselves had attacked. She swiftly spun to the right, kicking and stabbing with the dagger in her left hand. However, the hidden assailant was ready, swinging her off balance and pulling her back tighter. Anne used the momentum to crash into him, but he was ready for that. He pivoted so that she nearly fell, then spun her around, and slammed her face painfully into the rock. While she was momentarily stunned, he got a better grip on her right arm, then spun her away from the cave wall again. Before she could recover, she found a sword tip at her throat.
“So what have we here?” a sibilant voice breathed in her ear. A cruel twist to her right arm left her gasping. The sword dropped involuntarily from her numbed fingers. “Now, drop the other one,” he commanded, pressing the blade against her throat gently but with ominous intent. Anne reluctantly obeyed.
“Good. Joe, give us some light,” her captor called. There was a thud against flesh, and Robert Hobbs cried out again. After a moment, a lantern was opened, the light revealing a burly Crab man who had evidently knocked down poor Robert to tend to the task of lighting the lantern. Robert was given no time to recover before he was hauled to his feet and securely made prisoner again. Anne was sympathetic but distracted by her own situation, as the light did not make less the blinding pain of her twisted arm and only emphasized the yard of glinting steel at her throat.
“Now let’s take a look at you,” he commented, and to Anne’s relief he released her aching arm, and emerged out of the darkness, still keeping the sword steady where it was.
Her adversary was a young human man: tall, blonde and of an athletic build. Likely he was not more than a handful of years or so older than Anne, and might have been handsome, if his hard face had not been etched with cruelty. He was dressed in a gentleman’s suit of excellent material, embroidered with gold and silver threads, and fastened with exquisitely made buttons of gold and silver. He wore his hair artfully curled into long ringlets, scented with an expensive pomade.
Anne realized unhappily that she did not measure up. Her clothes were well made, but had been receiving a lot of hard wear. True, her waistcoat was adorned with her own embroidery, but that now seemed provincial and amateurish by comparison to his. Not that anyone could see her nice clothes, covered head to toe in grime as she was. She was sure her rapidly swelling right eye and bloody nose, both gained from being thrown into the cave wall, did nothing to improve her appearance. Anne glared at him boldly, but she felt small, grubby, and alarmingly vulnerable. He sized her up with obvious contempt, but after a moment donned a thoughtful expression.
“Hmm, I believe I know you,” he commented slowly, with a sort of triumph that increased Anne’s already fast pulse. In that moment he sounded frighteningly like Phule, when the Clockwork Elite had ambushed her in Marco Pollo’s tomb. “You’re -that- pirate: the one who got Avery‘s alliance he had been nattering on about, the one who is wanted by both the Monquistan royals and Armada, as well as some highly irritated nefarious types around Skull Island. You certainly aren‘t much to look at,” he added disdainfully.
“Ordinarily,” he gave a cold smile, “ I would just kill you as an intruder. However, there is an exceptionally large bounty for taking you, so your head is worth more to me alive than dead.”
“I’ve always thought so myself,” Anne retorted flippantly before she could stop herself.
The pirate’s eyes narrowed, and he delicately pushed forward the sword point so that Anne was very uncomfortably pressed against the rock wall to avoid being injured. He then slowly swung the blade in a gentle arc to rest on her left ear. “I’m afraid that I require some respect. And while you might be worth more alive, when I deliver you no one will care if you are missing an ear, or two, or a finger.”
He paused. “Now, I am going to ask some questions, and you are going to answer truthfully. And, no, don’t try anything. I will know all your tricks. We have the same teacher, the dear lady Morgan Lafitte, you and I. You are surprised? Perhaps you have not heard of me, Simon Craft? No matter. So then, how did you get here?”
‘-Years ago, the stork visited my parents and a blessed event occurred-…’ That was the first answer that popped into Anne’s head. But she did not voice it. She liked her ears to stay where they were.
“I found a small cave opening above and climbed down it,” she answered truthfully.
“I was the only one who could fit,” she lied.
However, he knew the cave tunnels well and believed her. That a small, courageous Monquistan would accompany her, Simon would not have guessed. He gave another cold smile, and moved the sword tip down to hover over the location of her heart. “Fortune indeed smiles upon me today. I expect I have time before your crew considers you gone too long and realizes your danger, and attempts some sort of assault.” He shifted so he had a view of his other prisoner, still held helpless by his crewman. “Mr. Hobbs, I am sure you do not want me to harm this brave --if foolish-- girl who risked her life coming to help you?”
Robert Hobbs shook his head. “No, I do not, s…sir,” he stuttered over the reluctant honorific.
The pirate’s smile widened. “Ah, you are learning proper manners. Good. We will do better then together, than we have… recently. Therefore Mr. Hobbs, you will stay very still once my associate releases you. Joe,” he ordered the other, “get me the mandrake and a cloth.” The crab crewman lumbered off, and the pirate captain returned his attention to Anne.
“I fear that you would be foolish enough to try to escape or hinder me, despite my warning. Since it is to my advantage to deliver you in one piece, I shall oblige you to take a few whiffs of the mandrake root distillate. That will send you into a deep slumber which will conveniently allow me to spirit you out of this cave, along with Mr. Hobbs, who I envision will be of much use to me. When you wake up, you will be safely housed in the brig of my ship, in chains.”
Anne involuntarily swallowed, her mouth dry. She remembered terrifyingly well the last time she was a prisoner in chains, held by the Armada. ‘-No, no, don’t think about it,-’ she scolded herself. ‘-You aren’t finished yet. You still have an advantage he doesn’t know about.-’
She needed to distract him, to keep him talking. “Why do you want Mr. Hobbs so much?” Anne asked, keeping her voice respectful. She hadn’t forgotten his threats about the ears. “His wife is very worried about him,” she added, seemingly artlessly.
Simon Craft looked contemptuous again. “She should be worried about herself. If I can’t get what I want out of him, I might be seeking her out to provide incentive for Mr. Hobbs.” Robert moaned involuntarily, and Captain Craft’s expression took on one of cruel pleasure. “But when Mr. Hobbs finally decides to cooperate, the explosives he will create for me will open all doors. Quite literally. No treasures will be safe from me, no stronghold impregnable. The small scale demonstration he gave showed an explosive power that I believe is stronger than dynamite, and dynamite itself is hard to come by in Skull Island. And who knows what other inventions his fertile brain may devise? You may be sure I will take good care of Robert Hobbs.”
“But I wouldn’t fret about him, were I you,” he added mockingly. “No, rather like Mrs. Hobbs, I should be worried about myself. I’m sure whoever buys you will put a permanent end to your pretensions. Probably I’ll sell you to the Armada -- they have the largest reward, and it might be useful for me to establish a working relationship with them.”
“But that you will not do!” A tenor voice with a heavy Monquistan accent challenged. “Unhand mi capitán, you villain!”
Simon Craft instinctively turned to meet the new threat. An instant later, he realized his mistake and grabbed for his prisoner, but it was too late. Anne had dropped to the ground, nimbly rolling away. He barely managed to fend off the strike of Don Velasco’s halberd, then swiftly slashed at Anne. She blocked the blow, not yet on her feet, but her blades already in her hands. Captain Craft backed away from the next combined assault, giving himself more room to attack and defend.
Whether or not he would have been successful against both Anne and the Monquistan marquis, none would ever know. In the midst of a fast exchange of thrusts and parries, Captain Craft suddenly staggered, his eyes rolling up, and dropped gracelessly to the ground. Anne blinked in momentary surprise. Standing right behind where the pirate captain had been, Robert Hobbs stood, his hands clutching the precious notebook with which he had just clonked his captor on the head.
The Marleybonean looked in dismay at the thick book, now twisted askew. “I think I broke the book spine,” he murmured sadly.
“You saved our lives!” Anne exclaimed. Simon Craft groaned, stirring. “Come on, let’s get out of here!” she urged.
All three turned to run, but Robert Hobbs hesitated. “Shouldn’t you… shouldn’t you finish him off?” Like many innocent people, Robert had a rather bloodthirsty notion of justice. Though, now facing the prospect, he had plainly had reservations about such a view.
Anne hesitated too. One cool part of her affirmed it was a good idea. The man was vicious, certainly a murderer, and putting an end to him would surely save lives. But her spirit revolted against stabbing a nearly unconscious man in the back, no matter how wicked he was. And many considered her a criminal, too. Where would she be if others she had offended gave her no chance?
Anne shook her head. “I am no executioner.” Robert gave a brief nod of acknowledgement, looking more relieved than disappointed. Then all three scurried towards the cave entrance.
Bonnie Anne had led a charge against Craft’s pirates, and they were skirmishing heatedly together. The enemy was sufficiently occupied that the three easily slipped behind them, and eventually out of the cave all together. Once they were clear, Anne gave a whistling signal to Bonnie Anne to break off the attack. Soon they were all together back on the ship, none significantly worse the wear from their little adventure, laughing and cheering each other on their success.
“We sail to Port Regal, and soon you will be re-united with your family, Mr. Hobbs,” Anne told him happily.
“I am more grateful than I can express,” Robert returned. “If I can ever do anything for you, you have but to name it.”
Anne doubted this. She now quite understood the opinion of Robert’s brother-in-law, Bosun Moon. Why study things that can explode if you can never actually use them? She did not understand that Robert Hobbs’ curiosity for nature was exactly like her own desire to explore the worlds of the Spiral. But she was polite. “There’s no need, Mr. Hobbs. Sometimes I do things without hope of gain, although Ratbeard hates that.” And she laughed.
“At the very least, I’m sure my wife will agree that we will name one of our pups after you, should we have a girl,” Robert offered.
Anne smiled. “I would like that.”
“It ends well,” Don Velasco commented. “Only, I fear you have made a new enemy, mi capitán.”
“He will have to stand in line,” Anne impishly rejoined. Then she began to laugh, her bright, infectious laugh that all joined in despite the seriousness of the threats against them.
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