“Why do you think she helped us?” Lock asked, scratching his chin.
That was something that had been bothering Jost. What was her agenda? It couldn’t be because she thought they were harmless. She’d helped them after watching them kill several men.
It occurred to him that she might have been working with the other men. He dismissed that assertion. If that had been the case, she could have let the snow cat kill them and accomplished his enemy’s objective. There was no doubt some of them, if not all, would have fallen to the snow cat’s claws.
He’d messed up not taking the possibility of its presence into account, especially given they were the reason he gave for coming to this land. His excuse had just become reality.
“Could be she’s curious about other humans,” one of his men said. “Maybe she just wanted a closer look.”
“She has been following us since shortly after we landed,” Danny said, looking at Jost.
Jost grunted. It was an explanation, but he wasn’t willing to believe it just yet. He needed to get hold of the girl. Study her. Find out her secrets then report her to the higher ups.
He dragged one hand down his face. “This just gets worse and worse.”
Lock blinked at him. None of the men looked like they knew what he was talking about. “How so?”
Danny’s eyes narrowed in thought. They widened and then he laughed, the sound a warm rumble in the cave. “You’re going to have to tell him.”
Jost grimaced. That was the last thing he wanted to do. That man was a pain in the ass. This girl was becoming more of a problem the longer he knew of her existence. He almost wished she had just let nature take its course.
“Let’s head back to camp. I have a feeling we’re going to need more men.” Jost headed for the entrance to the cave.
The snow cat had been quiet for a while. If they were in luck it had dragged the bodies back to its den and they could head leave this place.
“What about the malcontents?”
“They’ve already proven they picked the wrong side when they sent our enemy to ambush us. No mercy. We take care of them then focus on what’s important.”
There was a murmur of assent.
Good. Jost’s patience had just run out. Any suspected of being on Roger’s side would be dealt with so he could put his attention on more important things. The malcontents weren’t going to like what he had in store for them once he reached camp.
There was a group of ten waiting just outside camp when they arrived.
Guess Jost wasn’t the only one eager to have this finished. He couldn’t even find it within himself to be impressed by their gumption. The idiots would have been better served cutting their losses once they’d realized their plot had failed and slinking out of camp before he arrived.
“I’m challenging you for the right to Captain the Marauder,” Roger declared as he stepped forward.
“Oh?” Jost lifted one eyebrow, finding himself grimly amused. Perhaps he had overestimated Roger’s intelligence.
Roger hesitated not expecting that response. He looked suspicious as he gazed at Jost.
“Yes. It’s time for some fresh blood. Your plans have failed to reward us in spoils. We’re not in this to drift around freezing our balls off in the backwards of beyond. With someone new at the helm, we can take on more profitable endeavors.”
“And by someone new, you mean you, correct?”
Roger puffed up. “Might as well be me as anyone else.”
Jost looked at the others. “And you all agree with this?”
There was a pause as the men at Roger’s back exchanged glances. Some uneasy and others full of confidence. Jost wasn’t entirely surprised at the faces of the men who’d thrown their support in with Roger. Most were men who’d had trouble adjusting to the style of leadership Jost and his men employed. Others were men new to the life who were just now learning that it wasn’t all fun and games.
This life was difficult. It was hard and took backbreaking work. It was violent and the rewards didn’t always justify the sacrifices made. Men didn’t generally have a long life expectancy as a pirate, often dying from battle or disease. Since Jost ran his ship with a tight fist that promoted discipline and work over the carefree life pirates on other ships enjoyed, those that joined his crew were in for a hard reckoning.
Even still, Jost never had trouble getting men to join him. For all the drawbacks, his ship was infamous and the life expectancy was longer than most crews. He also enjoyed the distinction of never having been caught by the law in over a decade of piracy. Where most crews were caught within months of turning to this life, his record made for a pretty good incentive.
Jost saw two of the men they’d picked up recently were among those willing to throw their support behind Roger. Guess that wasn’t too surprising given how they’d joined the crew.
A sandy haired man winked at Jost from the back of the group. Jost kept his amusement inside. Looked like Roger hadn’t done as thorough a job of vetting his fellow dissenters as he should have.
Eric, a man given to chameleon like tendencies, was often overlooked in his crew. He liked finding trouble and avoided hanging with the higher ups so many never realized he was one of Jost’s most trusted men. His ability to blend was why he was Jost’s eyes and ears below deck when it suited him.
Jost sighed. Eric probably had been the one to push Roger’s and the others buttons to this course of action. He’d most likely convinced them that confronting Jost outside camp was a good idea. When really, it isolated them in case there were any left in the crew who might throw their lot in with the malcontents. Jost wondered how long Eric had been manipulating the malcontents from behind the scenes.
Guess this solved the question of whether he should keep Roger or one of his men alive so he could interrogate them about the whereabouts of his enemy. Knowing Eric, he would have made sure to get invited to any scheming opportunities and would know everything Jost needed.
“If this is what you want, I suppose it would be bad form for me to deny you.” Jost gave them an amused grin. “Let’s get this over with, shall we? I’ve more important matters to take care of.”
“You’re outnumbered. I would think you would want to delay the inevitable for as long as possible.”
Jost’s grin got wider. “You really shouldn’t believe everything your eyes tell you.”
Two men slumped to the ground behind Roger, red blotches on their back spreading.
All eyes turned to the man standing over the bodies with a pair of bloody daggers in his hand. Eric shrugged. “Sorry. I thought we were getting to the good part. I was getting bored.”
Jost’s men took advantage of the stunned shock and surged forward. Roger gave a shout and threw himself at Jost, a short sword in each hand.
Jost dodged the first thrust, parrying the second with the dagger he held. Roger’s other sword opened a cut on his forearm. Jost ignored it and twisted his arm, sidestepping Roger’s next lunge.
There wasn’t anything he could do about the greater reach of the swords. Wielding duel swords was incredibly difficult and took years of training. The fact that Roger could parry and block without cutting himself to pieces spoke to his level of skill. It made avoiding death difficult for Jost.
Lucky for Jost, he’d learned how to fight from some of the most underhanded and dirty fighters in the capital.
He flung a dagger at Roger’s face. In the split second of distraction, he closed with Roger, kicking his leg just behind the knee. Roger roared as his leg collapsed out from under him. Jost sank his other dagger in his neck angling it up under the ear and into the brain.
The fight went out of Roger’s body. He slipped sideways, collapsing face down into the dirt.
The others who had joined with Roger were already dead, their blood turning the snow red.
“Is that everyone?” Jost asked Eric.
“Everyone that I heard plotting with him. There may be a few who decided to see which way the wind was blowing before making a commitment.”
“Good enough.” Jost looked around. The loss of these men shouldn’t affect the ship too much. They had more than enough to get to the southern seas where they could pick up additional crew.
“How did you get them to gather all in one place to challenge me?” Jost asked.
Eric gave Jost a wicked smile. “I told them even if their plot had failed that you were likely to have been wounded, making you easy pickings for a challenge. I may have insinuated the rest of the crew were less likely to give them trouble if he defeated you in a fair fight.”
“And you couldn’t have just told us about the plot in the first place,” Danny said, glaring at Eric.
There was no love lost between the two. Danny would be hard pressed to offer Eric a single word of acknowledgement under any circumstances. The two’s relationship had always been kind of rocky. They saw the world through very different lenses, giving them polar opposite perspectives on nearly every problem they faced. Danny preferred to be direct in his dealings where Eric was as slippery as an eel.
Eric shrugged. “I figured you could use some excitement seeing as you’ve been rather restrained of late.”
Danny narrowed his eyes at Eric and curled his lip. “I’ll show you restrained.”
Eric looked over at him with a pleased look. “Oh ho. I can’t wait to see this.”
Danny started forward.
“Enough,” Jost said. “You two can settle this later. We have more important matters to attend to.”
Eric threw Danny a cocky grin.
“Boyo, you’re going to get yourself into a spot of trouble your captain won’t save you from one of these days,” Lock told Eric.
Eric’s grin turned into a full-fledged smile.
“You know where the base is?” Jost asked, his tone letting everyone know he was done with the games.
Eric’s expression turned serious, the charm and playfulness draining away. “I do. They’re actually not too far from here. He never revealed where he met them or how he got involved with them, but he did bring me along on one of their meets. I can show you where they are.”
“Good.” At least this trip hadn’t been a total disaster. “First we need to trap the girl.”
Eric blinked and looked around at the rest of them in suspicion as if he suspected this was a joke they were about to play on him.
“Excuse me. I think I must have misunderstood.”
“You didn’t misunderstand,” Lock groused. “You heard exactly what you thought you heard.”
Eric face said he still wasn’t getting it. He said slowly, “You want to set a trap for a girl rather than go after our target.”
Danny crossed his arms and said in a smug voice. “Yup.”
“A girl. Up here.”
“Yup. She’s dragon-ridden too.”
Jost snorted. “You’ll see soon enough.”
“Sweet Saviors, you’re not joking are you?” he asked.
Jost shook his head. “Unfortunately not.”
Eric looked intrigued. “This I’ve got to see.”
Jost leaned over the map, looking for the best spot to lay his trap. The girl was better at hiding and slipping away than he’d given her credit for. It’d been three days since she’d helped save him and his men from the snow cat. In that time, she’d been a ghost, not letting them catch even a glimpse of her.
They’d been back to the cave twice with no luck spotting her. He’d briefly considered sending a group into the tunnels attached to the cave but discounted it. If the tunnels were structured like the ones under Aurelia, there could be a warren of passages from which his men might not return.
No, he needed to lure her above ground, not chase her down an endless number of passages that she probably knew better than his men.
How to do that stumped him. So far she’d proven resourceful and not allowed herself to get caught or even seen. As far as he could tell she hadn’t gotten close to them again after their first encounter. Ghost indeed.
Frustration ate at him. He was tempted to take care of his other agenda before focusing back on the girl.
“No luck I take it with the way you’re frowning at that map like you intend to murder it,” Danny said in a dry voice as he set a cup down next to Jost.
He didn’t flinch at the glare Jost shot his way, by now used to his captain’s moods and expressions.
“The men haven’t reported any further sightings and if she’s watching us she’s being smart about it.”
“That’s what worries me,” Jost said. “If she disappears into those tunnels, I’m not sure we’ll ever get her out.”
“What do you have planned then?”
Eric crouched next to Jost, looking over the map. Jost didn’t flinch, used as he was to Eric appearing and disappearing without any warning.
“We could always pretend to leave. See if it draws this dragon girl out,” he offered,
“I considered that,” Jost said. “I’d like to keep that as a last resort. Once we pull that trick, we won’t be able to pull it again, and if we come back it might make her more on guard than she already is.”
“So you want to wait,” Danny said.
Jost nodded. “We do what we said we were going to do anyways. Hunt snow cats and hope the girl becomes curious.”
“This might be the perfect opportunity to slip over to the enemy’s compound for a little visit. We don’t have long before they start getting suspicious about their men not returning,” Eric said.
Jost was quiet as he turned over the scenarios in his head. He didn’t see any problem with taking care of his original mission as they tried to lure the girl into a false sense of security. It might even make her think they had given up on her.
“How far is it from here?”
Eric frowned in thought. “We took a pretty circuitous route last time to ensure we weren’t followed. If we head straight for them, it should only take us a few hours.”
“Did they have men posted as watch?”
“Only when you got close to the base.”
Hm. They could have changed that when it became clear their men had been held up for something. It was a risk, but one Jost was willing to take.
“Did you get a good idea of how many men they had?”
“I saw at least twenty and I’d be willing to bet they had almost that much waiting behind the scenes. They did say something about a ship leaving yesterday so some of their men might have left.”
“With the malcontents dealt with, we should have the men to launch an assault,” Danny said, considering the map. “If we call some of the crew from the ship, it would add to our manpower.”
Jost nodded. That worked for him. Beyond his revenge, he needed to get an idea of what these men were planning. If they were vulnerable due to a ship’s departure, it was the perfect opportunity. He could report back and call in reinforcements to deal with the clean up.
“We can head out tomorrow afternoon then attack in the early morning hours,” he said. “Gather the men. Leave only a small group here to watch camp. Everyone else will be part of the attack team. Eric, you will lead myself, Danny and a few others in an advance party so that we can do a little recon before tomorrow.”
“Aye, aye, captain.”
“We’ll leave in a few hours,” Jost said in dismissal.
The men nodded and left to take care of their tasks before departure, leaving Jost to his own thoughts. Anticipation rose at the thought of the conclusion to a decade and a half of plans. Soon everything would be over, and he could start living for himself again.