Authors: Jennifer Bradbury
He pulled something from inside the folds of his long traveling coat and held it out so Mat could get a good look.
Mat changed in a second. Fire leaped back into his eyes. “Where'd you get that?”
Elias felt sick.
It was the doll Josie had made for Mat's little girl.
“Where?” Mat demanded.
“Same place we found your two little brats this morning,” Pennyrile's brother said. “Over by your place, near the river. Your wifeâParthena, ain't it? She'll be sore worried over 'em by nowâ”
“Those're my children!” Mat pleaded.
Pennyrile's brother waggled the doll in front of Mat. “Well, by the letter of the law, they belong to Parthena's master, don't they? But either way, we've got 'em now. And whether they end up back at home safe with you and your pretty wife, or carried off downriver with us, where we'll sell 'em off to the worst, low-downâ”
“All right!” Mat roared. “All right.”
Pennyrile's brother chuckled. “See, boys? Their kind do feel attachments after all.”
As the others laughed, Elias wanted to scream. He found his hand clutching up a fist-size rock, and he ached to throw it.
“Iâ” Mat began before catching himself.
Mat was looking right at them. Past the shoulders of the ring of men surrounding him straight at the spot where Elias and Jonah were hiding.
Though it was dark, though they hadn't made a sound or a movement, Mat somehow knew they were there.
“I'll show you the way.”
Elias couldn't breathe.
“It's a long way,” Mat said, nearly shouting, much louder than he'd been talking before. “From here it's quickest to head on down Main Cave, then through the Rotunda, and the Cataracts down to Echo River. Then we got to go upriver, 'crost Lake Lethe, work up through Fat Man's, cross Bottomless, then over t'the Wooden Bowl, and then sideways before we cross Smiley Pit.”
What now? Elias pictured the route in his head, thought of all the walks he'd made down to Haven. Fat Man's wasn't on the line at all. And the route Mat just laid out would take double the time it needed to, what with getting that pack of men up the river and then across Lethe.
“I don't see that on the map,” Pennyrile's brother said.
Mat laughed. “â'Course you don't see it on the map!” He sounded more like the old Mat than before. “Bishop ain't stupid enough to lay it all out in the map. The map just works around it.”
“How far?” one asked.
“Couple of hours,” Mat said. “But the river will be a trick. We ain't got a boat big enough for all y'all. We'll have to ferry across in batches.”
“What's Smiley Pit?” another of the men asked, sounding almost like he didn't want to know.
“Smiley isn't on the regular tour, no way,” Mat said. “Too dangerous. No bridge like Bottomless. It ain't so wide, but it's double deep and the ground's uneven.” He gave the men a proper Mat Bransford glare. “The best way to protect things is to put them out of reach.”
And then Elias knew what Mat was doing. Why he was shouting so loud, why he was taking the pirates the long way round to Haven.
He was giving Elias and Jonah time. Time to get Stephen or Nick or Croghan or anybody. Time to get to Haven and warn everyone.
Jonah must have had the same thought at the same moment. His hand found Elias's arm and started to steer him back down the tunnel.
“Move, then,” Pennyrile's brother was barking. “And look lively, men.” But he was already an echo.
Elias and Jonah backtracked steady and quick to the main stretch of cave. When they were far enough away, Elias asked in a rush, “How you think Mat knew we were there?”
Jonah was nearly running. “Mat always knows when I'm lurking. And he'd have seen your light before.”
“I'll go find Stephen or Nick or somebody,” Elias offered.
“And I'll go to Haven and let 'em know. Then let's meet back at Smiley. If we got to make a stand, I don't think there's a better spot.”
lias sprinted up the hill back into the ward, lamp swinging wildly. He saw two shapes bent over the fire. Nick was back! “Nick!” he called out. Nick glanced up from the pan he was helping Lillian scrub out. “Where's Stephen?” Elias shouted.
“Down Gothic wayâ”
“We got to find him!”
Nick straightened up. “Whatâ”
“Is that Elias?” Nedra called from her window.
Elias glanced at the window, then back at Lillian. “She all right?”
“No worse. She was sleeping 'til you came in hollerin'â”
back!” Elias fought to keep his voice from going shrill.
Lillian's eyes grew wide.
“How many with him?” Nick asked quietly.
“Ten all together. One of 'em's his brother. We have to go!”
“Get!” Lillian ordered, shooing them off and then scurrying over to check on Nedra.
Nick grabbed his pack. “Where we going?”
Elias's eyes fell on a length of rope coiled near the fire, and he snatched it up. “Smiley,” he whispered.
As they barreled down the slope, Elias quickly told Nick what he and Jonah had seen.
“You sure it was Pennyrile?”
“Using that slate to talk. Can't be many who do that.”
They found Stephen at Gothic. “Croghan send you out to look again?”
“No need,” Nick said, leaving it to Elias to explain.
“Pennyrile's here.” The story tumbled out of Elias as the three of them ran past the Camel, dropped down the rocky slope, and hurried through the passage that led to Smiley Pit.
They stared at the jagged half-moon carved into the rock. It seemed to laugh at them now. It didn't look nearly as wide or as terrifying as Elias recalled. The room around it was barely bigger than Elias's hut. Not much of a place to make a stand. But it would have to serve.
“You sure ten of them?” Nick asked.
“I'm sure,” Elias said.
“I saw Parthena before I come down. She rode over with Mat today to work in the kitchens. Left the children at home. If they've been took, Parthena likely don't know yet,” Nick offered.
“Pennyrile's men didn't see you two?” Stephen asked.
“They'd have run us down if they had.”
Nick rubbed the back of his neck and shifted the twist of tobacco to his other cheek. “River'll slow 'em some, but they'll get here eventually. Mat cain't run 'em round forever.”
Stephen agreed. “Then we'll have to be ready, won't we?”
“They got guns?” Nick asked.
Elias hadn't seen any, but then the sight of the husk doll had been enough to gain Mat's compliance. “More'n likely.”
It was grim. Ten armed men against four, or five if Mat could get free. And those ten probably with weapons, probably with plenty of experience fighting and brawling.
“Should we bring some folks up from Haven to help?” Elias asked.
Stephen shook his head. “They'll hide, which they ought to anyhow. And there's not enough room in here to move free. Jonah knows it. He'll keep them down below.”
“What are we gonna do?”
“Can't shoot if they can't see,” Nick said simply. “How many lanterns they got, Elias?” He crossed to the wall, crouched, and rubbed at a spot near the floor.
Elias pictured the men in the Star Chamber. “Two,” he recalled. “Mat had one, and one of the fellas had th'other.”
“We can get them lights out,” Nick said, shedding his pack. “They'll be blind. Ever'body knows a blind fish is the easiest of all to trap.”
Elias felt like they were speaking in code.
But Stephen was catching on. “You got your drill, Nick?”
Nick already had it out. Stephen fumbled out of his pack straps and rummaged inside until he found his own drill and a pair of eyebolts.
“What're you doing?” Elias asked.
Nick was already at work, spinning the drill's hand crank furiously. Stephen went to the opposite side of the chamber and got to work. “We'll put a couple of bolts in here,” he said, and then pointed over to Nick. “And there. Then we can set up a trip wire.”
“How long's it take to drill the holes?” Elias asked.
“Maybe quarter hour each,” Stephen answered. “Stone's plenty soft down here.”
“What should I do?” Elias asked, desperate to help.
Stephen didn't look up. “I seem to recall you're handy with a rope, Elias.”
Elias dropped the rope from his shoulder and began to pay out the line, laying it across the floor of the chamber end to end. “We'll have to be on the other side,” he said, looking at a big boulder they could hide behind, perfect cover for springing the trap. He jumped Smiley and then saw quickly that they wouldn't have enough length.
“Bells!” he hissed. “Too short!”
“Check my pack!” Stephen whispered. They were all too aware that the gang of men might any moment draw near enough to hear them.
Elias hopped back over, too scared now of Pennyrile's crew reaching them first to worry about falling in the pit. He found another rope in Stephen's kit.
“Got it!” He crouched down, setting to work splicing the lines together. Then he leaped back over and checked the length of the rope. Plenty longâthey could even let it drape down inside Smiley so maybe the pirates wouldn't notice it when they came into the chamber.
Jonah appeared behind him. “What y'all doing?”
Elias hurriedly sketched out the plan for the snare. “Are they all set down below?”
“As can be,” Jonah said. “I met Josie on the watch, and she ran in the rest of the way. They gonna make 'emselves scarce but send a handful out to hide in the maze so they can get a drop on the pirates if they make it past us.”
Elias knew none of them had weapons to match the ones Pennyrile's crew might be carrying. Even if they managed to surprise the pirates before they could get their guns firing, he wasn't sure they'd be able to overpower them all.
The trap had to work. If it didn'tÂ .Â .Â .
Anxious with waiting, he jumped back across, hovering over Nick's shoulder as he worked.
“Hold the lamp up, 'lias,” Nick said as the drill's gears ground and whirred, the bit making powder of the stone. The limey smell of dust filled the chamber. Every dozen turns or so, Nick had to stop and blow a great puff of breath into the hole to clear out the powder. Then he'd check the depth with his finger and start drilling once again.
The whole thing went faster than Elias thought it possibly could. Still, he worried it was taking too long. How long had they been at it? How much longer did they have? How long could Mat stretch out the journey? Each minute that passed seemed a day.
By the time Nick had the hole as deep as his second knuckle, Elias felt frantic.
“Bolt!” Nick said, looking around.
“Here!” Stephen said, digging one from his pocket. Elias scurried over and passed it to Nick.
Nick fit the tip into the hole, and twisted and wiggled it as far as it would go by hand. Then he grabbed the hammer, hands trembling, the shaft slipping in his sweat-slicked palm. “I'm spent, Elias,” Nick said, huffing. “C'you drive a nail?”
Elias snatched up the hammer and crowded past Nick.
“Wait!” Nick said. He snatched Elias's scarf and laid it across the top of the bolt to muffle the sound. Elias went to work, hammering away. It was still louder than he would have liked, and the scarf slowed the work some, but Elias got it done. Nick gave the bolt a tug.
“Solid!” he cried out to Stephen.
Jonah was already helping Stephen drive the other bolt in the rest of the way. “Nearly there!” Stephen said, chest heaving, dripping sweat.
Elias tossed the hammer in Nick's pack and grabbed the end of the rope. He threaded it through the eye of the bolt and anchored it off with a strong bowline. It would hold. Then he bear-crawled to the other side, where Jonah was already feeding the rope through Stephen's bolt.
“We'll have to get 'em back out of here once they're blinded,” Stephen said, packing up. “I'm going to have to go up and find Croghan and get some men from the hotel, send somebody over to Cave City for the marshal.”
“They'll come, you think?” Elias lay on his belly, carefully drooping the line just inside the pit so it would be out of sight.
“They'll come when they hear Mat's kids got took,” Nick said, tossing his knapsack over the pit. “They belong to Parthena's master. Nobody looks kindly on somebody else's slaves getting thieved.”
Elias didn't have time to feel angry at that. None of them did. Satisfied the rope was as hidden as it could be, he jumped to the other side of Smiley. Nick followed, hiding his pack behind the rock and picking up the end of the rope.
“I'm goin' with you, Stephen,” Jonah said. No one objected. “I'll see if I can catch up to Mat and them. See how far along they are, how much time we've got.”
But no one moved just yet. Nick and Elias stood on the far side of Smiley; Stephen and Jonah stood on the other.
“Check it,” Stephen ordered. Elias and Nick both grabbed the end of the rope, gave it a hard tug. The rope snapped up, zinging through the bolts and snapping taut between them on the opposite side of the pit. The bolts and knots held true.
It didn't look like much, but Elias prayed it was enough.
“Good,” Stephen said as Jonah tucked the rope back over the edge of Smiley. Stephen scanned the floor to make sure they hadn't left anything behind. Then he and Jonah started off. At the edge of the chamber, Stephen whispered, “Elias?”
A wave of panic crashed through Elias. Had they come already? “What?” he whispered from behind the rock.