Chasing Treasure: Part Eight
Bannok felt numb. He joined the throng of jeering pirates and almost didn't care if he was seen. Everyone's attention was on the Arkmite, on Bannok's captured ship.
Questions whirled through his head. How had they done it? How had they known they were there - when had they had the chance to send anyone out to take the ship? Had they been lying in wait the whole time?
And more importantly, where were Sam and Niettah? He could only hope that they'd escaped, but it was a slim chance. He'd taken the only canoe with him and though Sam would have been just fine to slip into the water and avoid capture, Niettah couldn't swim that well. And Sam would never have left her, for all their disagreements in the beginning.
Which meant that either both of them had got out or both of them were on the ship, maybe captured, maybe in hiding. Bannok tried to subtly look over the pirates around him, weighing up his odds. He had two swords, one bad arm - aching, from hauling himself up onto the ship, but still usable - and an experimental amplifier gun that may or may not work. If Sam was still free, if the two of them could get back to back, they'd be able to fight their way out.
The Arkmite was almost alongside now, and Bannok craned his neck to see how many of the pirates were on board. He'd counted eight of them in the crowd with him, plus the captain, but it looked like there was only one more on the Arkmite. Ten against three; he'd had worse odds. Although it was worrying that both Sam and Niettah had been taken down by just one person; he'd have to be careful.
The lone figure on the Arkmite threw a rope with practised efficiency and darted forward to drop the sails. Bannok held back in the shadows as the pirates made short work of tying the rope on and steadying the Arkmite. He could see one person lying in an unconscious slump on the deck - Sam, he thought, but he couldn't be sure. That wasn't ideal, but there was only one person tied up which meant that Niettah was free.
The pirate that had sailed the Arkmite over pulled Sam up to sprawl over their shoulder. It hindered their movement; Bannok readied himself to leap forwards and free his brother, his swords already half drawn from their sheaths. Just a couple of seconds more...
She stepped into the light. The flickering lamplight threw her features into stark relief; the confident smirk, the array of weapons slung over her waist, the easy way she manhandled Sam and the careless way she dumped him at Rochefort's feet.
Bannok couldn't believe it. He couldn't - it was a trick. It must be a trick.
"Antoinette," Rochefort greeted in a pleased baritone. He swept his hat off in a dramatic bow and raised her hand to his lips.
"My dear Comte," Niettah all but purred in response. "It's been a while."
Rochefort laughed, deep and booming. "The whelps gave you no trouble, I assume?"
She swept her gaze over the crowd, easily picking Bannok out among the other pirates. He searched her eyes for some sign that she was acting, that this was some kind of trick. He found nothing but cold determination. "Not at all," Niettah said, each word striking through Bannok like daggers. She stared straight at him and smiled, a slow curl of triumph that chilled him to the bone. "They didn't suspect a thing."
She flicked her gaze back to Rochefort and Bannok sucked in a startled breath. He hadn't realised he'd been holding it.
"I apologise for the delay," Niettah said, every word crisp and cultured and nothing like her usual lilting accent. "This one -" she pushed Sam forward with her foot, and Bannok had to bite his cheek to stop himself yelling out - "was working out the last bit of the puzzle for us. I had to wait for him to crack the White Horn's miserable code before I brought him in." She held out a thin stack of parchments. The map pieces. Bannok didn't have to be able to see them to know it. She must've been after them the whole time.
Sam's head lolled back on the deck. Bannok could easily guess how the betrayal had happened. Sam, poring over the maps they still had and completely engrossed in the challenge they presented. He'd have asked Niettah to keep watch, and his guard would have been down because they trusted Niettah now. Both of them did. Because Bannok had disregarded Sam's instincts and told his younger brother that Niettah was a friend.
That mistake had cost him dearly. For what it's worth, Bannok silently promised his brother, I won't make it again. You and me against the world; no more trusting other people.
"Excellent," Rochefort grinned. "Ever the professional, my dear." He gestured expansively towards the island with one hand, the other settling around Niettah's shoulders. "I see no reason for us to delay any further," Rochefort continued. "Shall we?"
Niettah dipped her head into a shallow bow. "No time like the present," she agreed.
Rochefort laughed again and gestured two of the pirates forwards. They grabbed Sam, dragging him upright to hang limply between them, and made for one of the rowing boats. Bannok debated rushing forwards and stopping them, but he knew he'd fail. One of him against ten of them, the odds were too stacked against him. Particularly with Sam as vulnerable as he was.
His best hope was to take down the pirates on the ship once Sam was out of the way, then track them down to where the treasure was. Hopefully Niettah wouldn't realise he knew where it was; if he hadn't seen the navigator's notes, he wouldn't have a clue.
It was an almost physical ache to watch them lowering Sam into the rowing boat and leaving with him. Every fibre of his being rebelled against leaving his brother alone.
Soon, he promised feverishly as Rochefort, Niettah and the two other pirates rowed towards the island and the treasure. I'm coming, Sammy.
He did a quick head count of who was left. Six pirates - one of them was the skeith from earlier that may be an ally. Then again, after even Niettah turned out to be a traitor, he wasn't putting much faith in it. The others included an elephante, a laughably small kacheek that Bannok was instantly wary of, a pair of identical looking hissis (twins, perhaps?) and the zafara he'd followed out of the storage room.
He reached for his swords. He could take one, maybe two of them out in the first surprise attack - but after that it would be a free for all. He studied each one, singling out the most dangerous to go down first. The elephante, perhaps? She was the largest of the pets - but the skeith, if he did decide to fight, could be a serious threat. And the kacheek; he had Bannok on edge. In his experience, someone that small was at least four times as vicious to make up for the lack of size.
The steel slid free of the leather sheath with a gentle shnng. Bannok balanced a sword in each hand, testing the grip. His left arm was weak from the injured shoulder. It would have to do.
The elephante and the kacheek were standing almost next to each other. He crept into position behind them, swords raised, and took a breath to centre himself.
He leapt. The swords drove forwards with unerring accuracy, his full weight behind them. The elephante went down with a wounded cry.
"Ambush!" the kacheek yelled. He slid under Bannok's sword, one hand balancing himself against the deck. The other came up with a pistol, safety off and hammer cocked. Bannok swore and twisted himself to the side, dodging the bullet by millimetres.
The quiet whistle was all the warning he was given; he spun on his heel and raised both swords in a block. His wound screamed in pain but he grit his teeth and forced himself through it. The zafara's sword was hovering scant inches from his face. He couldn't afford to let the block slip.
"Fancy one here, lads." The zafara leaned forward, putting his entire weight onto Bannok's swords. "Thinks he can take us all, does he?"
One of the hissis crept up behind. Bannok darted aside, unbalancing the zafara and sending him tumbling into the hissi. A flying kick, a flash of blue fur, an explosion of pain in his shoulder; the second hissi had targeted his bad arm. His fingers fell open, numb and shaking, and his sword clattered to the deck. He brought his other sword up in a hasty parry and dodged back.
"Keep him still, wouldja?" The kacheek raised his arm in an almost lazy aim, one eye closed as he sighted down the pistol. The second hissi darted forward, wings flared to cage Bannok in. He couldn't dodge - she was moving too fast to block - he jabbed with his elbow, hard. Caught her across the chin, knocked her off balance, but her flailing tail sent him sprawling against the deck.
He gasped for breath, lungs burning. The elephante was limping forwards, dragging an unfeasibly large weapon with her. The angry anticipation on her features told Bannok that he could expect no mercy from her, not after the wound he'd given her. The zafara was down for the count, but both hissis were regrouping and moving to flank him. The kacheek stood dead centre, reloading his pistol for another shot.
Desperately, he sought out the last member of the crowd: the skeith. The old pirate was leaning against the mast, arms crossed and seeming almost bored. He raised an eyebrow at Bannok, and Bannok nodded back in grim recognition. He'd get no help from his tentative ally, but at least the skeith wouldn't interfere.
"Brain in the game, if you please," the male hissi mocked, sliding closer. Bannok took a breath and stood in the ready position, his one remaining sword held across his body. He turned, hiding his other hand from view.
"Why, are you going to play?" he shot back, stalling for time. His hidden hand withdrew the amplifier gun from his belt. "I was wondering when you'd stop messing about."
Both hissis reared back at that, spitting fury at the insult. The elephante raised her oversized gun to rest on her shoulder. Time up; Bannok brought the amplifier gun up and got ready to throw himself out the way if it didn't work.
"What kind of junk is -"
The gun fired with a deafening lack of sound. Bannok's ears rang from the oppressive silence and he nearly dropped the gun in his shock. He shook his head, dazed, and tried to clear the spots from his vision.
The pirates had frozen. It was the only way to describe it; there was a thick layer of ice over the whole deck. It covered everything in angular crystals, encasing each of them in a jagged, icy statue. He could even see the bullet from the kacheek's pistol caught by the ice, and the metal of the elephante's bazooka had warped under the pressure.
"That's quite a weapon you've got there, kid," the skeith said, his gruff tone piqued with interest. "Wherever did you get a thing like that?"
Bannok flashed a confident smile, hiding how shaken he was. "Tools of the trade," he offered flippantly. "Top secret and all that. I'm sure you know how it is."
"No," the skeith said simply. He shrugged and turned aside, dismissing the strange weapon. "I want nothing to do with Ami's secrets. Whatever war she wages against her brother is her own doing; my only concern is that Rochefort not be allowed to use the White Horn."
"And you think it will be better with Ami?" Bannok pressed.
He got a rough snort in response. "If Little Ami wanted to rule the world, I'm quite sure she wouldn't need such an inelegant weapon to do so." With a final wave, the skeith disappeared below deck, leaving Bannok alone with one unconscious zafara, four ice statues, and a healthy fear for the Dauphinne Amelie de la Mer, wherever she may be.
But one mystery at a time. He raised the amplifier gun, careful to keep it pointed away. "How on earth did you do this?" he asked it, turning the weapon over in his hand. Something glinted from within the wire cage of the barrel. He drew it out with two fingers and held it in the palm of his hand.
"The cooling crystal?"
It was - or it had been - the central power cell of the cool box from the storage room, the spark of faerie magic that had kept the food cold. Now it was cracked and dull, the magic spent in one dramatic shot. Bannok looked at the amplifier gun with new respect; if it could ramp up a simple cold spell into an all-out ice weapon, he could only imagine what it would be able to do with some proper battle magic in it.
That would come later though. For now, he needed to get to Sam.
To be continued…