Note: Hello all. As usual, sorry for the delay in an update. I hope you enjoy it and aren't bored of it by the end of the chapter.
This chapter's title is from Antony and the Johnson's "Hope There's Someone".
Thank you so much too everyone who followed, favorited, kudos'd and reviewed after the last update. I truly appreciate everyone's interest and the feedback and encouragement!
So many thanks to broomclosetkink for her help and support and beta reading while I wrote this. She's well used to my neuroses by now, but this chapter featured particularly vocal whining on my part. John's backstory is entirely her idea and I'm just so grateful she shared it with me, because if she hadn't, John would probably be seeking revenge against a man who once stole an apple fritter from him.
Just kidding. Sort of.
Chapter Three: Ghost on the Horizon
Rocking, creaking, and a salt spray woke her. Molly lay there unmoving for several moments, staring at the billowing canvas above her head.
Somehow, though she couldn't quite place the why and how of it, she was on a boat. Judging by the fully unfurled sails and moving blanket of clouds above her, this particular craft was well underway at sea.
She wasn't soothed by the lull of the waves. To the contrary, she jolted upright, looking desperately around her as the implications of her dire straights set in. It was only when she found three pairs of eyes watching her that she remembered: Her flight from the castle down to the shoreline. The lost men asking for directions. A giant hand clasping her face and suffocating her. Darkness.
Now, those same men sat at the bow of the boat and looked unmoved by her distress. They watched as she scuttled back from where they'd discarded her on the deck, unimpressed by such a futile attempt to put some distance between her and them.
"Who are you?" she demanded, her voice raspy. She had to try to raise it to be heard over the lap of water against the boat's hull. "What do you want with me?"
The first of the two smaller men, the one who'd first spoken to Molly on the beach, smirked. "Miss Hooper, welcome aboard. Glad your ship came in."
Shaking her head, she replied, "I wasn't waiting for a ship."
"Doesn't mean you don't need one." His voice met with the caw of a circling gull overhead, lending a strange opposition of innocence to his ominous words.
"Let me go," Molly pleaded. "Let me go before this goes horribly wrong for you."
The blond man—Ron? Don? Ian? Molly couldn't remember though she'd heard him addressed by name—turned to his older companion. "Jeffrey, let's turn around and do as the lady asks."
The first man, Jeffery, turned slowly, his eyebrows arched. "Don't worry, John."
John scoffed. "Why shouldn't I worry?"
"After we kill the colorful Miss Hooper, you can continue on with your little revenge scheme. You'll be flush in the pockets as you get yourself run through with a sword."
Molly did not want to humanize a man who had willingly taken her captive, but she could have sworn that John stiffened. "You never said anything about killing her," he said lowly. "This was supposed to be a simple kidnapping for ransom."
"My sponsor's instructions changed," Jeffrey explained with a bored shrug.
"Who exactly is your sponsor?" John asked.
"Someone whose identity you should have investigated before you agreed to take the job, Watson. Now, help Dzundza trim the sails."
With that, Jeffrey unfolded a map and turned his back on his three shipmates. He stood unmoving on the port side of the boat with his head bent over the parchment, and paid no mind to the two men fighting the wind's pull behind him.
Dzundza, the impossibly tall and heretofore silent strangler, seemed not to find much help in the much shorter John, but the two of them worked against a hard gale. They were all absorbed enough in their tasks that none of the men noticed Molly carefully pushing up onto her knees. It wasn't a large boat and she was able to peer over the deck rail with little strain.
At first, all she could see was water, mist, and clouds around her. She fought down oily panic as she squinted over the brackish surface in the direction of the boat's bow. She had to keep on thinking, she scolded herself. It wouldn't do to panic and simply await her death. Her captors had not even bound her hands.
Almost as if they invited an attempt to flee.
Just as Molly was starting to think that she would have to bide her time, the mist swirled, revealing the obsidian-black of landfall ahead of them. Squinting, she tried to estimate its distance but only came up with one answer: still quite far. But was it too far to swim? She bit her lip. It was going to be a futile attempt anyway, but she had to try. She was not sure another opportunity would present itself.
As carefully and slowly as she could manage, she pulled herself to her feet, trying to keep low enough that she didn't move into the men's line of sight. She looked down to the churning water and prodded herself silently. Before she could rethink it, she rolled over the deck rail and into the water. The drop was only a few feet, but she felt her stomach leap in that strangely protracted moment where she was suspended between starboard and sea.
The water closed over her, its icy cold robbing the breath that she'd so carefully drawn in before leaving the safety of the boat deck. The swamping wet pulled and dragged at her skirts, but she kicked furiously, desperate not only to reach surface but move away from the hull. She opened her eyes despite the stinging of the salt and could see the rippling daylight above her head. With a push of her arms against the weight of her dress, she finally broke the surface, gasping for air.
At first, she was too dazed by the cold to notice much of anything, but slowly, the sounds of shouting drew Molly's attention back in the direction of the boat.
Jeffrey, John, and Dzundza all stood at the rail, the former two men calling to her.
"Miss Hooper," John cried, "It's not safe!"
Jeffrey, meanwhile, looked unconcerned. He shushed John before grinning at Molly, revealing his crooked teeth. "Stay in there if you like. If the cold doesn't freeze your blood in a matter of minutes, the sharks will take care of you."
"This sea is t-too cold for sharks this far north." Molly's teeth chattered and she felt her energy start to drain with the effort of treading the water.
"I would tell that to the one coming at you now," Jeffrey leered.
Dread thumped in Molly's chest as she caught movement out of the corner of her eye. She whirled (or tried to) and saw that Jeffrey was not lying. Something was slicing through the water towards her from fifty meters off, and quickly.
"It looks hungry," he called to her, his words almost sing-song. "But we could pull you back aboard. Give you another chance to try—and fail—to save your own life once we're on shore."
Molly could now make out the distinct shape and color of a cloud-grey fin. She shut her eyes in momentary defeat even as she nodded. "Yes, please. Pull me back."
She looked up to the three faces above her. John was trying to lean over the rail, extending a hand to her, but try as she might, she couldn't reach it.
"Dzundza?" Jeffrey sighed.
With a grunt, the tall man leaned down and grabbed a fistful of the back of Molly's dress, plucking her from the sea with little strain. Just as the chill of wind bit her ankles, the water frothed and spewed as something large broke the surface. The shark's enormous jaw chomped at the air where Molly had been a mere hairsbreadth before. She felt the rush of air and gave a preemptive gasp, but Dzundza dropped her back onto the wooden planks of the deck before she could suffer any injury.
Molly sat there, dazed as Jeffrey smirked down at her and John studied her with a furrowed brow. Defiantly tamping down a shiver, she glared back at the ringleader of her hostage-taking and refused to show just how shaken she was by her encounter with a large predator.
Deep down, though, she wondered if it wouldn't have been better to get eaten by the shark. She had no idea what Jeffrey had in store for her, or why, but it couldn't be pleasant.
Finally, the men scattered again and Molly collapsed back against the rail. She couldn't fight the shudders arcing through her body anymore. She'd once read that shivering was important in warding off death from the cold, so she allowed herself to give in to the shaking.
The sound of footsteps coming toward her roused Molly, and she looked up in surprise to see John leaning down to cover her with a scratchy, tattered blanket.
"Thank you," she said, uncertainly.
He sat down onto a nearby crate, carefully moving the sabre strapped to his side out of the way. "It's nothing. Are you alright?" His voice was quiet, as if he was afraid the others might hear him.
She almost answered honestly, but then remembered that this was a man who had aided in her capture and was doing little to defend her from oncoming death. Instead, she muttered, "What do you care?"
He sighed. "I do care. I never intended…. I didn't want this."
"Then why are you still here? What could possibly be worth my death?"
He looked at her beseechingly. "I promise you, I had no idea that was the plan."
Molly scoffed. "And yet here we are. What are you going to do to stop it?"
She never found out if she could count on John to be her one, misguided advocate. Just as he started to to reply, something caught his eye off of the stern of the boat. He stood quickly, sending the crate skidding along the deck behind him.
Molly followed his gaze, but could only see the specks of gulls out on the horizon. She watched as he hurried aft, still trying to spot what had caught his attention so abruptly.
She didn't have to wait long in suspense.
"Gentlemen," he called to Jeffrey and Dzundza with feigned casualness. The two men looked up with mild interest. "I don't want to be an alarmist, but I do believe we're being followed."
Jeffrey squinted in myopic study. "Doubtful. It's probably a merchant vessel heading to the port town."
But what if he was wrong? A stab of hope pierced Molly's stomach before she remembered that the only person who might try to save her was quite possibly the greater of two evils. She looked to shore again and started mapping out possible hiding places for after she miraculously incapacitated all three of her captors.
"We're about to make landfall," John interrupted her thoughts. "I'll drop anchor. Dzundza, let's get the rowboat ready."
The two men hurried across the deck and began making preparations; however, Molly couldn't help but notice that John kept flicking his glance back behind them.
After they hoisted her into a rickety rowboat, the three men piled in behind her and lowered it down to the water. The wood groaned as John and Dzundza began pulling at the oars, and Molly had a distressing vision of the shark breeching and biting the tiny boat in half. She'd escaped going down its gullet once and wasn't optimistic that she'd evade death-by-shark a second time around.
"The ship is getting closer," John murmured, interrupting Molly's fatalistic thoughts.
Indeed, she could now see distinct sails stretched against the skyline. She looked over to Jeffrey, pettily hoping to see signs of alarm. She didn't want to see Prince James ever again, but she also quite hated Jeffrey.
She was disappointed to see that he still looked unimpressed.
"It's highly doubtful that it's coming for us," he said again, his voice calm.
John stared at him a moment before shaking his head and continuing to pull at the choppy water.
After several, silent minutes, the boat skidded into the shallows. John and Dzundza clambered into the knee-deep water and tugged it further onto the sand, until the waves hardly reached it. Dzundza reached down and dragged Molly out. On solid ground, her waterlogged skirts felt even heavier and she swayed on her feet, trying to get her bearings. She scanned the area again for means of escape. Perhaps she could get her hands on an oar and hit them upside of their heads?
It was almost as if Jeffrey had read her thoughts, for her staggered to her over the loose stand, grinning maliciously as he pulled a length of rope from the satchel hanging off of his shoulder. He chuckled when her eyes widened. "Oh, don't worry. I'm not going to kill you here. We'll move further inland. There can't be any mistaking what or who killed you. Boss' orders." He stepped up to Molly. "Turn around, arms behind you."
If she entertained any ideas of elbowing Jeffrey in the midriff and fleeing, Dzundza quashed them by stepping forward. He glared down at her as he pushed her wrists together for Jeffrey, who bound them efficiently.
"Prince James will see you all hanged." She hated even mentioning her fiancé's name, but desperation was starting to eek in. She grimaced when she felt Jeffrey pat the knot of her binding as he laughed greasily.
"He will, eh? I'll look forward to meeting him, then. Let's move."
Molly shot a beseeching look at John, but he was distracted, looking back out to the pursuing ship. It was definitely closer, but John appeared to have given up on warning his party. When he did finally meet her eyes, she arched her brows at him, as if to say, Well?
He lifted his hands minutely, a helpless gesture.
The shoreline sloped up into a rather steep climb below what appeared to be a plateau, and Molly had to fight not to tip over without movement in her arms for balance. They'd made it about halfway up the side of the hill before Jeffrey bothered look back out to the sea. His lips curled into an unhappy sneer.
The pursuing ship was pulling up abreast with the sailboat that her captors had piloted. She could make out the shadowy form of someone singlehandedly working the pulley ropes that secured a rowboat similar to theirs.
"Not following us, eh?" John asked calmly.
Jeffrey regained his composure. "It's doubtful he'll catch up to us."
John gave a bitter laugh. "The things you've found doubtful up to now have all come to fruition. I'm beginning to suspect you don't actually know the meaning of the word."
"Fine," Jeffrey snapped. "If you're so sure I'm wrong, return to the beach. Your one advantage is your sword. Find us after you've dispatched him. Dzundza, it's your turn to steer Miss Hooper."
Molly wilted as she realized the one person who might have helped her was being separated from her. She tried to comfort herself with the thought that he had never actually promised to protect her, but her gut told her that John would not have allowed Jeffrey and Dzundza to kill her.
She squared her shoulders and fought her panic with a new resolve. She would just have to save herself.
And this time, there wouldn't be any bloody sharks to stop her.
John Watson spent fifteen years of his life in the service of the king in a Dragoon battalion. He had seen more than his share of combat in that time, and had quickly earned a reputation for his efficient skill with a sabre. Even now, as he flirted with middle age, he didn't think it boastful to admit that he would prove a worthy adversary to anyone who cared to challenge him.
After he was invalided, he hadn't set out to turn mercenary. In fact, some might have argued that it was the furthest thing from a fitting career for a man of his temperament. By all rights, he should now be relishing his hard-won quiet. But necessity was not just the mother of invention, but also the mother of bold acts from otherwise peaceful men.
So here he was, now made a kidnapper and accessory apparent to the murder of an innocent woman.
The regret plagued him after Jeffrey, Dzundza, and Molly Hooper disappeared from sight. Miss Hooper was well and truly on her own now. He could only hope that she found a way out of her circumstances. If not, the only way he could right this wrong was to incapacitate or kill the group's pursuer and make it back to her in time.
A glance down the hill confirmed that the mystery man giving chase was rapidly approaching, pulling hard at his oars, approaching the beach at a punishing pace. John frowned at the desperation in the stranger's speed. He'd be exhausted before he reached his goal. This would be a quick fight, indeed.
John didn't bother to hide; there'd be no point in that. The other man must know he was there. Instead, he checked his boot lacings and sword blade, calming the nerves that always danced through him before the singing clash of steel.
His shoulder twinged, a needless reminder, and he rubbed at it absently.
Only a few, short minutes later, the stranger leapt from his boat, not bothering to pull it further on land. He stalked across the sand, breathing heavily and looking right at John. He wore all black, from his hair, his long, swirling coat, and down to the leather of his boots. Though the man was rather thin, he had several inches on John, and that was something to take into account.
"Where is she?" the man asked. His voice was pitched low, and was all the more threatening for it.
If John had wanted to reply, he wouldn't have had the chance. The stranger yanked a sword from a sheath at his hip and lunged.
Later, John would have a hard time explaining what happened. All he knew was that this man was likely one of the best swordsmen he'd ever fought, in spite of his breathless approach.
They skirted the tiny beach again and again, thrusting and parrying, their blades never making contact with anything but each other.
"You're fantastic," John said conversationally as they circled each other. Perhaps talking would distract his foe.
"Thank you," the man replied primly, skirting a swipe from John's blade. "Likewise. You're a Dragoon, I see."
John spared a thought to wonder how he knew, stepping lightly back from another lunge. "Former." He parried and their swords clanged loudly. "It'll be a shame for Prince James to lose you as a champion," he grunted.
The man in black laughed dryly. "I'm many things, but I'm not one of James' champions."
This gave John pause. He lowered his sabre slightly. "You're not trying to save the prince's fiancée?"
"Oh, I'm not trying. I will save her," the man replied, rolling his eyes at John's stupidity. He danced forward again but didn't do much more than hold his sword hand aloft.
"To return her to the prince, then?" John clarified.
"Over my dead body," the stranger said. "And please, for the sake of your dignity, don't say, 'That can be arranged.'"
Blocking a half-hearted advance, John shook his head. "Wouldn't dream of it. Who are you?"
"No one to be trifled with."
John couldn't help it. He laughed. When the man's eyes narrowed, John waved at him and lowered his sword the rest of the way. "Sorry, it's just…I've only ever read that line in storybooks. So you're going to kidnap Molly Hooper not only from the men who have her, but also the crown prince? Why?"
"I fail to see how that's any of your concern," the man said, peering at John suspiciously. He had yet to lower his blade, but at least he was no longer trying to impale his opponent.
"Because," John said, trying to appear as unthreatening as possible. "I'd be willing to help you if I can be sure that you don't mean to harm Miss Hooper."
"And I'm to trust that you're not going to harm her yourself? You did help kidnap her." The man's lip curled derisively.
"Something I regret very much. Why do you want to save Molly Hooper from the prince?" John repeated.
The mysterious man's cool eyes scanned John, assessing before he finally lowered his sabre. "Prince James will harm her more than your merry men ever could."
"Those 'merry men' mean to kill her," John reminded him.
"He'll harm her more than they ever could," the man repeated.
John looked at him quietly for a moment before straightening with a single nod and sheathing his sword. "The name's John Watson, by the way."
The stranger still looked suspicious and did not reciprocate his introduction. "Why do you want to help me?"
"Because I don't want any more harm to come to Miss Hooper. And because I have business with the prince's adviser."
Nodding, John took the chance to turn his back on his opponent, trusting that the stranger's interest was piqued enough not to run him through with his sword. He set off up the hill and heard the crunch of shifting sand under footfalls behind him.
"Sebastian Moran. He was in the Light Cavalry with me," he explained, picking up where he'd left off.
"He betrayed you."
John shook his head, "Not just me. Our entire regiment, in fact. He killed seventeen Dragoons in one night."
"Impressive," the man said.
John whirled around, gaping. "Impressive that he killed several, good people, including my—are you really so heartless?"
"Oh, I'm sure they were great,"—John wasn't convinced the man was being particularly sincere—"but it takes a skilled fighter to single-handedly take that many people."
"He had help. Three other men, lackeys of his."
"No wonder the sniveling coward of a prince employed him. James does so hate to get his hands dirty; he'd appreciate some good delegation. But that's not why you're seeking revenge."
"No?" John's brow winged up.
"No," the man said decidedly. "You've medical training. Those aren't sword nicks on your hands. Your skill with a sabre is incidental. You were with the Dragoons as a sawbones. Followed your brother into the service. He was one of those killed by Sebastian Moran. This quest of yours is far too personal and devout to be anything but vengeance for him."
"How do you know any of this?"
"The engraving on the fuller of your blade. H.W. You just told me your name is John Watson. That's a right-handed sabre while you are decidedly left-handed. A cavalryman's sword, nice workmanship, but nothing remarkable." The stranger indicated along the length of the blade. "It shows some wear, but not much on the blade, and certainly not enough to have seen much battle, yet the style is more than six years out of fashion. It belongs to a person who died before he could get much use in. It's not your sword, but you carry it to honor your brother, who was cut down before his time."
They walked up the sharp climb in silence for several moments.
"I bought it and had it engraved as a gift," John explained, feeling a fresh stab of grief for a loss that shouldn't feel new after so many years. "She was ecstatic."
The man came to an abrupt halt and his face actually showed genuine surprise. "She?"
John nodded absently, examining the sword hanging from his hip. "Harriet Watson. My sister."
"A woman Dragoon."
"Growing up, Harry never had much interest in the fripperies that little girls are told they should like. She realized very early on that her nature would very likely get her executed as a heretic, but she couldn't abide a stifling life as the bride of some merchant. When we were twenty-two, she ran away from home. I found her only by a small miracle the day she enlisted with the Dragoons, disguised as boy."
"And she managed to conceal herself for more than ten years?" the stranger very nearly marveled.
John hmmed in the affirmative. "I was an apprentice to the town doctor, content in my quiet, dull future. But the moment I discovered what Harry had done and realized that I would not be able to change her mind, I enlisted, too. I did my best to help hide her true identity. She didn't need my protection, but we were twins and it was a potentially permanent separation. She was always far more adventurous than I, and this was no exception. She left because she wanted freedom. I left because I knew nothing other than how to worry."
"She died, so it sounds as if you were right to worry," the man suggested.
"Not until the end. She fought fiercely and precisely. If you think I am skilled with a blade, you should have seen her. You wouldn't have fared nearly so well if had been she you fought." John smiled with a ghost of pride aching in his heart before it dropped away as he remembered. "One night, a little over five years ago, our fellow Dragoon, Sebastian Moran spotted Harry without her bindings on, though he didn't get a close enough look to have it confirmed. But he made it his mission to find her out. And when he did…. Killing her flat-out would have been a mercy. Instead, he brutalized her."
For once the man in black had no rejoinder. He stood there, watching John with faint sorrow.
Needing the distraction of walking, John indicated that they should start moving again. "Harry, though she was injured an traumatized, went after Moran. She decided to kill him. And she would have, if Moran's lackeys hadn't intervened. And so Moran got the upper hand with a little help from his friends. He killed her. He took the time to put her back in our tent, lewdly placed to shame her even in death. When I found her body," he continued, "I knew immediately who had defiled and murdered her. I plead my case to my regiment's colonel and he agreed to arrest Moran for a tribunal, though he threatened to do the same to me for aiding the concealment of a woman in our camp. But he and I, along with three other men, went to take Moran into custody."
"And Moran and his men fought back," the man supplied.
"Yes. They killed my colonel and the others and left me for dead, and then managed to kill seven more men that night before finally escaping. Moran picked off his own men as he scurried into the shadow of the prince and there he stays, well protected from reprisal." John's hand returned to the grip of his sabre. "But I will get to him, and when I do, I will calmly reintroduce myself and then stab his black heart with Harry's blade before he can reply."
"Well," the strange man said after several more moments of silence as they finally reached level ground once more. "Perhaps we can help each other, for I have business with the prince. But first we must save Molly."
"Why are you so interested in her?" John called behind him. The dense trees made it hard for them to walk abreast. "Has she been cuckolding her fiancé with you?"
The man scoffed. "Hardly. I have my reasons to save her. Again, they're none of your concern. But I assure you that I only want her to be safe."
"That's a lot of effort from a person she seemed not to recognize."
"She would have no reason to expect me. But there's a town up north that's missing its Master in the Art of Death and a talented midwife. She filled both roles and it's time she was restored to her home there."
"What do you care?" John asked, confused.
The man didn't reply. John turned to repeat his question, but the man in black brought a finger up to his lips.
They listened for several, pregnant moments before the man nodded at John and started walking once more. "Up ahead," he explained.
John squinted, and made out a tall figure ducking into a copse of trees, still far out of earshot and walking away from them. "That will be Oscar Dzundza. He's the… large fellow."
"Dzundza. I know that name."
Nodding, John watched as the giant man disappeared from sight. "Yes, he's gained a reputation as a hired assassin. He only takes on minor cases of kidnapping when the death work is slow."
"Ah, yes," the man nodded. "He certainly gets around."
"Apparently, my mysterious employer only likes the best."
The stranger glanced sharply at John. "You mean you don't know who your employer is?"
"No. Jeffrey, the one who organized this whole thing, hired me."
"And you blindly accepted?"
John bristled. "I was assured that it was the quickest way to Moran. Jeffrey told me Miss Hooper would be expecting us and was in on it. I only found out that was not the case when we took her. And I admit that I was mostly focused on what I would get from the deal."
The man in black looked unimpressed. "So you're an idiot, then." And then he waved off John's look of annoyance. "Don't worry, nearly everyone is. Your employer is obviously Prince James."
Sputtering, John shook his head. "No! That doesn't make any—what reason would he have to kidnap his own fiancée?"
"It' amazing, the things war can get you."
"You're telling me Prince James is trying a start a war by framing whole country for the death of his betrothed?"
The man in black shrugged. "The prince is like a spider. His power only goes so far as the span of his web. Conquer the neighboring country because you want to? It's hard to rally willing troops. But respond to an act of war with the country that killed prince's 'beloved'? Oh, now, that will sound the battle cry."
John nearly tripped over a log as he considered the man's words. He barely managed to keep an eye open for Dzundza, Jeffrey, and Miss Hooper while he worried his bottom lip in thought. He'd heard stories about Prince James, of course, and knew him to be the worst sort, if his willingness to keep Sebastian Moran was any indication. Still, how could he, John, not realize just who was pulling the strings?
His thoughts were interrupted when the branches ahead of them snapped and Oscar Dzundza burst forward, barreling right for them.
Without discussing it, the stranger and John moved away from each other, letting the giant stumble right between them. Dzundza stretched an impossibly long arm out and his large hand connected with the side of the man in black's head. It was a hard enough strike to momentarily daze the man, and Dzundza took advantage of his distraction to lunge at him. His large hand closed over the man's face, and there it stayed despite the man's struggles.
Without pausing to think about whether it was wise or not, John charged at Dzundza, catching him in his midriff with his shoulder. Dzundza grunted, hardly moving, but it was enough to force him to release his suffocating hold on the man in black's face.
John only had a moment to regret his oversight in not dancing away after connecting with Dzundza. The giant turned to him, his nostrils flaring as he swung out at John. With a smack that he would later swear echoed several times, John saw himself careening toward a large boulder. His temple connected with the stone and he reeled around, falling slowly to the dirt and nettles beneath him.
The last thing he saw before blackness overtook him was the sight of the man in black leaping onto Dzundza's back and bringing a large rock down on the giant's head.
Though he was confident that Watson or Dzundza would be able to kill their mysterious pursuer, Jeffrey prepared his own line of defense with satisfaction. He relished the opportunity, in fact. Knowing that his superior intellect and cunning made up for his lack of sword fighting skills and physical powers was titillating for a man like Jeffery.
He only felt a smattering of surprise as he watched as a lone man-one whom he did not recognize-emerge into the clearing. So, he'd managed to kill Watson and Dzundza, then. That was a shame. Good fighters were hard to come by. But it really made no matter, in the long run. Jeffrey was about to have his fun, and that was all he'd ever wanted when he entered Prince James' employ.
He crouched down in front of a flat rock, setting two phials in the middle of the rock before resting his hands non-threateningly on the surface. He watched as the stranger raced up to him, unsheathing his sword with a look of cold fury.
"Oh, I wouldn't do that," Jeffrey drawled before the man could get too close.
The stranger ignored the suggestion, but did take time to respond. "And why not?"
"I'm unarmed, for one thing. And besides, if you kill me, you'll not find Miss Hooper."
Though he didn't drop his sword arm, the man frowned at Jeffrey. "I see she managed to break your nose, so it looks like she's alive and well. But what if I don't care to find Miss Hooper? Perhaps I'm only here to kill you."
Jeffrey laughed quietly. "Oh, you're a terrible bluffer. I'm a businessman. You have no reason to kill me."
"No one else would die because of you. I'd call that a result."
"I recognize you," Jeffrey said, instead of reacting to his words.
The man arched an eyebrow. "So?"
"So I know exactly why you're here, and if you kill me, you'll never get what you want."
"How do you propose we negate this impasse, then?" the man asked.
"Oh, you're going to love this. You're a proper genius, so this should be fun."
The man studied him with a sneer. "I see. So you're a proper genius, too."
Jeffrey shrugged modestly. "I don't look it, I know. But I promise you this: you will learn. It's probably the last thing you'll ever learn."
"Before I get bored and just stab you, explain to me what you want."
"I just want to have a chat. You listen to me talk. If you don't kill yourself, she's all yours."
"What makes you think I won't find her even if I just kill you?"
Nodding vaguely toward the woods, Jeffrey explained, "She's concealed well. She'll just wither away. Starvation and exposure… not fun ways to go, but that's what she's in for if you don't play this game with me."
The man stared him down, not moving for several moments before he stepped up to the opposite side of the rock, lowering down onto his knees. His gaze flicked over the phials.
"Two bottles. Explain."
Jeffrey grinned. "There's a good bottle and a bad bottle. One bottle contains a little something I made up, derived from a highly toxic Australian plant."
"And the other is harmless," the stranger finished.
"See, I knew you were a bright one. And I'll make you deal. You choose one, and I'll take the other."
"But you know which one is which."
Oh, this was fun. "Of course I know. That's the game. You choose."
"And how do I know you won't cheat?"
"Easy," Jeffrey said. "I don't care to die."
The man studied him. "And yet you're willing to play a game of chance."
"Chess, not chance. A game with the highest stakes, which I've won every time I've played so far. And now it's your move." He slid a phial across the smooth rock, stopping when it was right in front of the other man.
"There're even odds that I'll pick either one. You have no way of knowing," the man argued.
"I know how people think. I know how you think. It's strategy that has kept me alive this long. So how's your strategy? Am I bluffing? Or double bluffing? Or maybe even triple bluffing?"
The stranger's eyes swept over his opponent and the bottles.
"Think you've got the answer?" Jeffrey asked.
"Of course. Child's play." The man reached forward, grasping the nearest bottle. He held it up to the light, studying its contents.
His gaze flickered up to Jeffrey as he slowly uncorked it and brought it up to his lips.
Jeffrey felt his lips curl in a smirk as he, too, opened a bottle and made to swallow the pills inside.
But just as the glass touched their lips, Jeffrey felt a sharp, sudden sting in his back. He nearly buckled at the pain, but managed to turn.
John Watson stood there, breathing heavily and resheathing his sword. "I'd say building up an immunity to the poison is cheating, wouldn't you, Jeffrey?" he panted.
Jeffrey slumped to the ground, his hearing tunneling. He felt his heart protest as blood seeped from it, but he refused to accept his death. He lay there, listening to the muffled words of the two men before him.
"Dzundza woke up and ran. I'll go after him. Go find Molly Hooper," John said to the stranger before he turned and raced off, back toward the beach.
The man nodded, but only skirted the rock, walking up to Jeffrey's prone form.
"Where is she?" he demanded.
Jeffrey coughed weakly, a small laugh, and he refused to answer.
This didn't move the man in black. He merely lifted a booted foot, kicking lightly at Jeffrey's shoulder until he was flat out on the ground. He set his foot lightly on the stab wound. "Where is she?" he repeated.
When Jeffrey again didn't respond, the man sighed. "You are dying, but it will be relatively painless from here on out if you just answer me."
The man steadily applied pressure until Jeffrey bellowed at the agony. The stranger only let up enough pressure to allow Jeffrey the faculties to flail his arm toward a dark gathering of trees. "She's there. Eighth tree in, covered by a dun blanket," he sobbed.
The stranger's foot returned to the ground. As he made to run, he took time to casually toss over his shoulder, "It was a pleasure doing business with you."
Her body ached. The tree was enormous, and the span of her arms didn't even reach the radius in her horrible, pseudo hug of the trunk. Jeffrey may have depended on John Watson and Oscar Dzundza to steer the boat, but he certainly knew how to tie a strong sailor's knot. Her pain only felt exacerbated as she stared dully at the speckles of light that seeped through the wool blanket he'd draped over her.
Molly pressed her cheek to the scratchy bark, too tired and her wrists too raw to keep struggling against the thick rope that bound her. Her jaw hurt from the gag stuffed in her mouth, and she knew that she'd not be able to escape this. She could only wait for her death, now.
Her heart kicked in her chest when she heard someone running toward her. The gait was too even to be John Watson's, too light to be Dzundza's. It must be Jeffrey, back to kill her. She wished she'd managed more than the broken nose she'd given him before he tied her to the tree. It was a petty, small triumph, but then, she was going to die, so she would take what she could get.
So the only thing Molly had left was her defiance. She refused to look around when the blanket was yanked back, though the sudden, resurgence of light had her squinting, anyway. She made no sound when hands untied her gag, though her mouth worked to relieve the horrid pain of being held open so roughly. She stared straight ahead at the rough bark of the tree, waiting, and refusing to react.
When calloused fingers moved to untie her wrists, Molly only allowed herself a moment of confusion. Jeffrey probably wanted to see the fear in her eyes as he killed her.
She wouldn't give him that satisfaction.
"Go to hell," she suggested to the figure behind her. A hand came to rest gently on her hip, and Molly froze, trying not to tremble when her killer leaned forward, his chest pressing against her back.
She had no time to react further before soft lips and warm breath brushed the shell of her ear and whispered, "If I must."