Caleb paused to pull the neckerchief from about his throat and wipe the sweat from his brow. This was the second day of their trek along the path leading—originally, at least—north from Kale’s camp. They’d followed the well-trodden path more or less north for most of yesterday, but in the last hours before they’d halted for the night, the track had veered to the east.
Today, the path had started to climb while angling more definitely eastward. And they’d started to come upon crude traps. Phillipe had been in the lead when they’d approached the first; he’d spotted it—a simple pit—and they’d tramped around it without disturbing the concealing covering. From then on, they’d kept their eyes peeled and found three more traps, all of varying design, clearly intended to discourage the unwary, but it had been easy enough to avoid each one.
If they’d needed further confirmation that they were on the correct path, the traps had provided it. But there hadn’t been another for several miles.
Caleb glanced around and saw nothing but more jungle. His internal clock informed him it was nearing noon. He couldn’t see the sky; the damned canopy was too thick. Accustomed to the wide expanses of the open sea, he was getting distinctly tired of the closeness of the jungle and the dearth of light. And the lack of crisp fresh air.
Phillipe had been walking with Reynaud in the rear; he came forward to halt beside Caleb. “Time to take a break.” Phillipe pointed through the trees. “There’s a clearing over there.”
Caleb fell in behind his friend, and their men fell in behind him. They trudged ten yards farther along; the track remained well marked by the tramp of many feet. The clearing Phillipe had noted opened to the left of the path. Their company shuffled into it. After divesting themselves of seabags, packs, and weapons, they sprawled on the leaves or sat on fallen logs, stretching out their legs before hauling out water skins and drinking.
Luckily, water was one necessity the jungle provided in abundance. They’d also found edible fruits and nuts and carried enough dried meat in their packs to last for more than a week. If not for the stifling atmosphere, the trek would have been pleasant enough.
Phillipe lowered himself to sit beside Caleb on a fallen log. With a tip of his head, he indicated the jungle on the other side of the path. “We’ve been angling along the side of these foothills for the last hour. The path’s still climbing. I’ve been thinking that, following the inestimable Miss Hopkins’s reasoning, the mine can’t be much farther. The children who were taken—certainly the younger ones—would be dragging their feet by now.”
Caleb swallowed a mouthful of water, then nodded. “I keep wondering if we’ve missed a concealed turn-off, but the traffic on the path is as heavy as ever, and it’s still going in the same direction.”
They’d been speaking quietly, and their men had, too, but Phillipe glanced around and murmured, “I think, perhaps, that when we go on, we should keep talking to a minimum.”
Caleb restoppered his water skin. “At least until we’ve found the mine. The jungle’s so much thicker here, we could turn a corner and find ourselves there. We don’t want to advertise our presence, and we definitely don’t want to engage.”
Phillipe’s long lips quirked wryly. “No matter how much we might wish otherwise.”
Caleb grunted and pushed to his feet. Phillipe followed suit, and three minutes later, their party set off again, tramping rather more quietly through the increasingly dense jungle.
Fifteen minutes later, their caution proved critical. Caleb caught a fleeting glimpse of something pale flitting about a clearing ahead and off the path to their right. Phillipe was in the lead. His eyes glued to the shifting gleam, Caleb seized his friend’s arm and halted. Their men noticed and froze.
Phillipe shifted to stand alongside Caleb, the better to follow his gaze. The intervening boles and large-leaved palms made following anyone’s line of sight difficult.
Caleb couldn’t work out what he was seeing—a gleam of gold, a flash of…what?
Then the object of his gaze moved, and Caleb finally had a clear view. “It’s a boy,” he breathed. “A golden-haired, fair-skinned boy in ragged clothes.”
“He’s picking those berries,” Phillipe whispered. After a moment, he added, “What do you want to do?”
Caleb scanned the area. “As far as I can tell, he’s alone. I can’t see anyone else, can you?”
“No. And I can’t hear anyone else, either.”
“If we all appear, he’ll take fright and run.” Caleb considered, then shrugged off the pack he’d been carrying and handed it to Phillipe. “Keep everyone here until I signal.”
Accepting the pack, Phillipe nodded.
Caleb made his way quietly toward the boy, dodging around trees and taking care not to alert his quarry. The lad looked to be about eight, but woefully thin—all knees and elbows. He was wearing a tattered pair of dun-colored shorts and a loose tunic of the same coarse material. It had been the bright cap of his fair hair, gleaming as the boy passed through the stray sunbeams that struck through the thick canopy, that had attracted Caleb’s attention.
The boy was circling a vine that had grown into a clump, almost filling one of the small clearings created when a large tree had fallen. The bushy vine bore plump, dark red berries that Caleb and his company had already discovered were edible and sweet. His attention fixed on his task, the boy steadily plucked berries and dropped them into a woven basket.
Despite the boy’s bare feet, the basket suggested he hailed from a group of some kind; from the features Caleb glimpsed as the boy moved about the bush, the lad was almost certainly English.
He had to be from the mine.
Caleb reached the edge of the clearing. He hesitated, then said, “Don’t be afraid—please don’t run away.”
The boy jerked and whipped around. He grabbed up the basket, his knuckles turning white as he gripped the handle.
His blue eyes wide, the boy stared at Caleb.
Caleb didn’t move other than to slowly display his hands, palms open and clearly empty, out to either side.
The boy was poised to flee.
If he did, Caleb doubted he could catch him, not in this terrain. “I’ve been sent to look for people—English people kidnapped from Freetown.” He spoke slowly, clearly, evenly. “We think they’re being used as labor for a mine. We’re searching for the mine.” He paused, then asked, “Do you know where the mine is?”
When the boy didn’t respond, Caleb remembered that the mine was conjecture and rephrased, “Do you know where the people are?”
The boy moistened his lips. “Who are you?”
He wasn’t going to run—at least, not yet. Caleb was usually relaxed with children, happy to play with them, to join in their games. When convincing children of anything, he knew the literal truth was usually advisable; they always seemed to sense prevarication. “I’ve come from London. People have been searching for those kidnapped, but we’ve had to do it bit by bit—carefully. To make sure the bad people who are behind the kidnapping don’t get wind of us coming to help.” And kill all the kidnapees. He stopped short of voicing that truth.
The boy was still staring at him, but now he was studying him, his gaze flitting from Caleb’s face over his clothes, his sword, his boots.
“I’m going to crouch down.” Moving slowly, Caleb did. If he’d stepped closer to the boy, he would have towered over him—too intimidating. And laying hands on the lad from a crouch would be that much harder.
Sure enough, as Caleb settled on his haunches, the boy noticeably relaxed. But his gaze remained sharp; although he constantly glanced back at Caleb, watching for any threat, he started scanning the shadows behind Caleb. “There are more of you, aren’t there?”
“Yes. I asked them to stay back so we didn’t frighten you.” Caleb paused, then offered, “There are twenty-four more men back on the path.”
The boy blinked at him. “So there’s twenty-five of you all together. All armed?”
The boy frowned; he seemed to have lost his fear of Caleb. After a long moment of calculation, the boy shook his head. “That’s not going to be enough.” He met Caleb’s gaze. “There’s more mercenaries than that at the mine, and they’re all fearsome fighters.”
So there is a mine. And it is nearby. Caleb tamped down his elation. “We’re not the rescue party. We’re the advance scouts. Our mission”—and he could almost hear his eldest brother, Royd, groaning over him telling a boy, a young boy he didn’t know anything about, such details—“is to locate the mining camp and send word of it back to London. Then the rescue party will be dispatched, and they will have the numbers to put paid to the mercenaries.”
The boy studied Caleb’s face, searching his eyes as if to determine whether he spoke the truth—then the lad smiled gloriously. “Cor—they’re never going to believe me when I tell ’em, but the others are going to be in alt! We’ve been waiting ever so long for anyone to come.”
The excitement in his voice was infectious, but…Caleb waved both hands in a “keep it quiet” gesture. “Before you tell anyone, you need to remember that our mission must remain secret. The mercenaries at the mine must not learn that we’re here.” Caleb locked his gaze on the boy’s eyes. “If the mercenaries realize rescue is coming, it could be very dangerous for all the people kidnapped.”
The boy’s delight faded, but after a second, he nodded. “All right.” He looked at Caleb, then glanced out into the jungle again. “So what’re you going to do now you’ve found us?”
“I’m hoping you can take us closer to the mine—to some place from where we can see it but not be seen ourselves. Can you do that?”
“But before we get to that, I want to hear what you can tell me—us—about the mine and the encampment.” Caleb swiveled and glanced behind him, then looked at the boy. “What’s your name?”
“I’m Caleb. And if it’s all right with you, Diccon, I’d like to call my men closer, so we can all hear what you say.”
Caleb rose—slowly—and beckoned his men to join them. They tramped through the jungle following the route he’d taken, leaving as little evidence of their passing as possible. Each man nodded at Diccon as they reached the clearing. They all sidled in, trying not to crowd Diccon despite the limited space. Several hunkered down, including Phillipe.
Caleb did, too, again bringing his face more level with Diccon’s. “Right, then. This mine—does it have a fence around it?”
That was all he had to ask to have Diccon launch into a remarkably clear and detailed description of the camp—more like a compound—that surrounded the entrance to the mine. Crude but effective outer walls, with huts for various purposes. Mention of a medical hut had Caleb and Phillipe exchanging surprised glances.
Diccon’s description wound to a close; he’d mentally walked in via the gate, then taken them on a clockwise tour describing every building they would pass.
“That’s extremely helpful,” Caleb said, and meant it. “Now—how many mercenaries are there?”
“Hmm.” Diccon’s features scrunched up. He had set down his basket, and from the way his fingers moved, he was counting. Then his face cleared. “There be twenty-four there right now, plus Dubois, and six are off taking the latest batch of diamonds to the coast for pickup.”
Caleb blinked. “So it’s definitely diamonds they’re mining.”
“Aye,” Diccon said. “Thought you knew that.”
“We’d guessed it, but until now, we couldn’t be certain.” Caleb tilted his head. “You said the mercenaries take the diamonds to the coast for pickup—not Freetown?”
“Nuh-uh. At least, we—all of us in the compound—don’t think so. Far as we’ve been able to make out, they take the strongbox toward the settlement, but the pickup is somewhere on the estuary, see? That way, no one in Freetown knows.”
Phillipe shifted, drawing Diccon’s attention. “The six who’ve gone to the coast—do they go and return via that path?” He pointed at the path they’d been following, which lay not that far away through the palms.
A pertinent point. Caleb looked at Diccon—and was relieved to see the boy shake his head.
“That path just goes to Kale’s camp.” Diccon’s eyes grew flat, and his expression shuttered. “You don’t want to go that way.”
“Kale’s not there anymore,” Caleb said. “He’s…left. Along with all his men.”
“Yeah?” Diccon studied Caleb’s face, then his eyes grew round as the implication registered.
Before he could ask the eager questions clearly bubbling on his tongue, Phillipe intervened. “Which route do the mercenaries take to the coast, then?”
“There’s another path—well, there’s several leave the compound. One goes to the lake where we get our water, and there’s this one, where all of us came in from. Then there’s another that divides into two not far from the gate. Those who go to drop off the diamonds take the northwest branch, and we reckon it also eventually leads to Freetown. They could get to Freetown through Kale’s camp, but Dubois—he’s the leader—he mostly sends his men to get ordinary things like food and stuff that we know must come from Freetown when they go to drop off the diamonds.”
Caleb nodded, a map taking shape in his brain. “You said that path divides into two—where does the other branch go?”
“Far as we know, it leads dead north. We think there’s nothing but jungle that way, all the way to the coast.” Diccon paused, then added, “Maybe some natives. There’s a chief that owns this land, see, and Dubois pays him to let the mine be. We think he—the chief—lives that way. That’s why the track’s there, but no one from the mine uses it.”
Phillipe caught Caleb’s eye. Caleb nodded fractionally. That little-used path sounded like the one they should fall back along. He refocused on Diccon. “Tell us more about the mercenaries.”
“Well, like I said, there’s thirty of them all up, including the cook and his helper, who are just as fierce as the others. And there’s Dubois. He’s in charge, and they all mind him. He has two…lieutenants, I suppose you’d say. Arsene—he’s Dubois’s second-in-command—and Cripps is the other. The mercenaries are all big and tough, and they carry swords, lots of knives, and some have pistols. The ones on the tower and the gates have muskets.”
Caleb slowly nodded. Direct observation would be best. But first… “How is it you’re allowed out by yourself? You are by yourself, aren’t you?”
Diccon’s face fell. “Aye. I’m no good in the mine, see. I just cough and cough. Dubois, he was going to kill me—he said I was useless, and he wasn’t going to waste food feeding me. But Miss Katherine spoke up for me.” Diccon straightened. “She said I wasn’t useless and that I could help fetch fruit and berries, and nuts, too, so that the cook could properly feed all us children. And the adults, too. She said that way, we’d all stay healthy and work better—and Dubois went fer it.”
Consulting his mental list of the females kidnapped, Caleb asked, “Miss Katherine—is she Miss Fortescue?”
“Aye. That’s her. But all us children call her Miss Katherine. She’s in charge of us.”
And was clearly a lioness if she’d spoken up and saved Diccon.
Diccon heaved a disconsolate sigh. “I wish I could run away, but Dubois said that if’n I ain’t back by sundown every day, he’ll kill two of me mates.” The boy’s face paled. “So I don’t even dare be late back. He’s a devil, Dubois is.”
“You believe him?” Phillipe asked the question gently.
Diccon looked him in the eye. “We all believe Dubois’s threats. Even Mr. Hillsythe. He says Dubois is one of those villains who enjoys killing, and that we none of us should ever doubt he’ll do exactly what he says.”
Caleb caught Phillipe’s eye. Hillsythe was Wolverstone’s man. If that was his assessment of Dubois, they’d be well advised to pay it due heed. “All right.” Caleb returned his gaze to Diccon. “I think it’s time we took a look at this camp—but first…” As he rose, he glanced at the assembled men, then he looked back at Diccon. “We need to find a place to camp that’s close enough to the mine for us to keep watch and study it, but far enough away that no one from the camp is likely to stumble across us. I thought perhaps somewhere along that path to the north—the one no one uses.”
Diccon nodded. “I know just the place. There’s a good-sized clearing a little way down that track.”
Caleb laid a gentle hand on the boy’s shoulder. “Can we get to it without going closer to the camp?”
“O’ course—I can lead you.” Diccon’s happy grin returned, and he swiped up his basket. “I know all the places round about. I can go where I like around the camp, and the berries and fruit and nut trees grow everywhere.”
“Is it likely anyone from the camp might hear us?” Phillipe asked.
“Nah.” As Caleb let his hand fall from Diccon’s shoulder, the boy turned and beckoned. “We’re still well out, and the trees and leaves and all keep sound in. You often can’t hear someone until they’re quite close.”
Caleb signaled to his men to follow and, with Phillipe on his heels, fell in behind Diccon.
When they reached the path from Kale’s camp, Diccon beckoned them onward. “I’ll take you through the jungle and around until we hit the other path.”
He proved as good as his word, leading them unerringly on a tacking course around jungle trees and more dense pockets of vegetation. He waved them to caution as they approached another path. When Caleb put a hand on Diccon’s shoulder and leaned down to breathe in his ear “What?” the boy tipped his head back and whispered, “This is the northwest path they use to drop off the diamonds and go to Freetown. I don’t think they’ll be on their way back yet, but…”
Caleb released his shoulder with a pat. “Good lad. Always play safe.”
They crept to the edge of the path and strained their ears, but heard nothing. Swiftly, they crossed over the beaten track and plunged back into the jungle. Ten yards on, Caleb glanced back and could see nothing but jungle foliage. Finding a guide had been a stroke of luck. Without Diccon to lead them, they would have been stumbling around—very possibly into the mercenaries’ clutches.
But Fate had smiled and sent the boy to them.
When they came upon the next path, Diccon walked confidently on to it. “That place I told you about—the nice clearing—is just along here.” He led them down what was clearly a very much less well-traveled track. There were small saplings springing up, and vines laced across the path. Phillipe muttered, then told the men to work on keeping their passing as undetectable as possible. So they avoided the saplings and ducked under the vines, all of which Diccon whisked light-footed around.
Then he turned off the path onto a narrow animal track. Fifteen yards on, it descended into a clearing that—as Diccon had promised—was perfect for their needs. Big enough to comfortably house all of them and with a tiny stream trickling past on one side.
“Here you go.” Grinning, the boy spun, holding his arms wide.
Caleb grinned back. “Thank you—this is just what we need.”
Phillipe smiled at Diccon and patted his shoulder as he passed. “You’re an excellent scout, my friend.”
The other men made approving noises as they filed into the space.
Diccon positively glowed.
It took only a moment for Caleb and Phillipe to organize the establishment of their camp, then, summoning their quartermasters—Caleb’s Quilley and Phillipe’s Ducasse—they presented themselves before Diccon.
The boy looked at them expectantly.
“First question,” Caleb said. “Have you got enough fruit in your basket to satisfy the cook?”
Diccon lifted the floppy basket, opened it, and examined the pile of fruit inside. “Almost.” He looked up and around, then pointed to a small tree with dangling yellow fruit. “If I got some more of those, I’d have enough.”
Two captains and two quartermasters dutifully gathered several handfuls of the ripe fruit.
Diccon smiled as they filled his basket, then he clamped the handles together and looked at Caleb. “More than enough.”
“Excellent. What we need next,” Caleb said, “is for you to lead us to a place where we can see into the camp, all without alerting any guards. Do you know of such a spot?”
Diccon snapped off a salute. “I know just the place, Capt’n.” He’d heard Caleb’s men using his rank.
“In that case”—Caleb gestured toward where he assumed the mine must be—“lead on.”
Diccon did. He lived up to their expectations, leading them first along the disused path again, then cutting left into the untrammeled jungle. He looked back at Caleb and whispered, “This will be safest. We’re moving away from the other paths and into the space between that northward path and the one leading to the lake. The mercenaries take some of the men to the lake to fetch water every day, but they do that in the morning. There shouldn’t be anyone at the lake now.”
Caleb nodded, and they forged on, increasingly slowly as Diccon took the order to be careful to heart.
Eventually, he halted behind a clump of palms. Using hand signals, he intimated that they should crouch down and be extra careful while following him on to the next concealing clump.
Then he slipped like an eel through the shadows.
Caleb followed and instantly saw why Diccon had urged extra caution. The compound’s palisade lay ten yards away, separated from the jungle by a beaten, well-maintained perimeter clearing—a cleared space to ensure no one could approach the palisade under cover. The compound’s double gates were five yards to their right. And the gates stood wide open with two armed guards slouched against the posts on either side. Both guards’ attention was fixed on the activity inside the camp, but any untoward noise would alert them.
Given the gates were propped open, Caleb surmised that the real purpose of the guards—and, indeed, the fence, the gates, and the guard tower in the middle of the compound—was to keep people in; the mercenaries had grown sufficiently complacent that they didn’t expect any threat to emerge from the jungle.
Well and good.
They watched in silence for more than half an hour. Caleb noticed that heavily armed guards appeared to be patrolling randomly through the compound, but the attitude of all the mercenaries was transparently one of supreme boredom. They were very far from alert; the impression they gave was that they were perfectly sure there would be no challenge to their authority.
Against that, however, he saw some of the captives—he had no idea which ones, but both male and female—walking freely back and forth. More, some met and stopped to chat, apparently without attracting the attention of the guards.
Then he noticed Diccon peering up at the sky. The sun was angling from the west. Remembering the boy’s concern over returning in good time, Caleb tapped him on the shoulder, caught Phillipe and the other men’s eyes, then tipped his head back, into the relative safety of the area behind them.
Diccon retreated first. One by one, the rest of them followed.
They gathered again well out of hearing of the guards on the gates. Caleb dropped his hand on Diccon’s shoulder and met the boy’s gaze. “Thank you for all your help. Now, we have to tread warily. Who is the person you trust most inside the camp?”
Caleb blinked. He’d expected the boy to name one of the men, but his answer had come so rapidly and definitely that there was no real way to argue with his choice. Slowly, Caleb nodded. “Very well. I want you to tell Miss Katherine all we’ve told you. Can you remember the important bits?”
Diccon nodded eagerly. “I remember everything. I’m good like that.”
Caleb had to grin. “Excellent. So tell Miss Katherine, but no one else, and see what she says. Then tomorrow, when you come out, go and look for fruit in this area—between our camp and the lake. Behave as you usually do and gather fruit, and we’ll come and find you. We’ll be waiting to hear what Miss Katherine, and any others she thinks fit to tell, say.”
Diccon’s face brightened. “So I’m like…what is it? A courier?”
“Exactly.” Phillipe smiled at the boy. “But remember—the mark of a good courier is that he tells only those he’s supposed to tell. Not a word of this to anyone else, all right?”
Diccon nodded. “Mum’s the word, except for Miss Katherine.”
“Good.” Caleb released the boy. “I would suggest you circle around and come in from some other direction.”
“I’ll go to the lake and walk in from there—that way, if you keep watching, you’ll see where that path comes out a-ways to the left.”
Caleb’s approving smile was entirely genuine. “You’re taking to this like a duck to water.” He nodded in farewell. “Off you go, then.”
With a brisk salute and a grin for them all, Diccon melted into the jungle; in seconds, they’d lost sight of him.
“He is very good.” Phillipe turned toward the gates. “But I’ll feel happier when he’s back inside where he belongs.” He waved toward their previous hideaway. “Shall we?”
They returned to the spot. Five minutes later, Diccon appeared out of the jungle to their left. He passed their position without a glance and, basket swinging, all but skipped back through the gates. He headed to the right, vanishing into an area of the compound that from their position they had no view of.
Caleb consulted his memory. “He must have gone to deliver his haul to the cook—he said the kitchen was that way.”
He’d barely breathed the words. Phillipe merely nodded in reply.
Sure enough, ten minutes later, they saw Diccon, no longer carrying the basket, cross the area inside the gates, right to left. He appeared to be scanning the far left quadrant of the compound—but then he whirled as if responding to a hail from somewhere out of their sight to the right.
Even from where they crouched, they saw his face light up. Diccon all but jigged on the spot, clearly waiting…
A young woman appeared. Brown-haired, pale skinned, she moved with a grace that marked her as well bred. Smiling, she came up to Diccon and held out her hands. Diccon readily placed his hands in hers, all but wriggling with impatience and excitement.
Closing her hands about the boy’s, her gaze on his face, the woman crouched as Caleb had done.
Immediately, the boy started talking, although from the way the woman leaned toward him, he was keeping his voice down.
“Miss Katherine, obviously.” Caleb scanned all of the area around the pair that he could see, but there were no guards or, indeed, anyone else close enough to hear the exchange.
As Diccon poured out his news, Caleb saw the woman—younger than he’d expected by more than a decade; he’d had no idea a governess could be that young—start to tense. Clearly, she’d realized the import of what the boy was telling her—and she believed his tale.
That last was verified when she glanced out of the gates—not directly at them but in their direction.
Immediately, she caught herself and refocused on Diccon again.
But Caleb had seen that look, had caught her expression. However fleeting, that look had been a visual cry for help that had also held a flaring of something even more precious—hope.
By some trick of the light, of that moment in eternity, he’d felt that hope—fragile, but real—reaching out to him, something so indescribably precious he’d instinctively wanted to grasp it. To hold and protect it.
Then she’d clamped down on the emotion, but he no longer harbored the slightest concern that the adults in the camp wouldn’t believe Diccon’s tale. She—Miss Katherine—did, and even though Caleb had yet to exchange so much as a word with her, he felt certain a woman brave enough to stand up to a mercenary captain in order to save an urchin’s life would have the backbone to carry her point with the English officers in the camp.
Diccon finished his tale. Her gaze fixed firmly on his face, Miss Katherine slowly rose to her feet. Then she released one of his hands, but retained her clasp on the other. Drawing him around, she set off with a purposeful stride, heading in the direction of the mine. In just a few paces, she and Diccon had passed out of their sight.
They continued to watch for several minutes, but no alarm was raised, and there was nothing of particular interest to see.
Caleb frowned. He leaned toward Phillipe and whispered, “We need to see into the compound—we need a much more comprehensive view.”
“I was thinking the same, and it just so happens”—without raising his arm, Phillipe pointed, directing Caleb’s gaze upward—“the compound is nestled into a curve in the hillside, and if you look very closely just there…”
Caleb looked. His eyes were accustomed to reading ships’ flags at considerable distance; he quickly picked out the rock formation Phillipe had spied. “Perfect.” Caleb grinned. He glanced back at Quilley and Ducasse. “We’ve plenty of time before the light fades to find our way to that shelf.”
They did and discovered it to be the perfect vantage point from which to survey the compound. The rock shelf was wide enough for all four of them to sit comfortably, sufficiently back from the edge that the shifting leaves of trees growing up from below screened them from anyone on the ground. They spent another half hour observing the movements of the guards and the captives, thus confirming and acquainting themselves with the uses of the different structures in the compound. Diccon had given them an excellent orientation, but it seemed that most of the adult males were down in the mine and not presently available to be viewed.
There was a large circular fire pit in the space between the entrance to the mine, the barrack-like building that from Diccon’s description was the men’s sleeping quarters, and the large central barracks that housed the mercenaries. Ringed with logs for seats, the fire pit was situated well away from all three structures. A small fire burned at the pit’s center, doubtless more for light and the comfort imparted by the leaping flames than for warmth, and the women were already gathering about it. Miss Katherine sat with five others, but from the relaxed postures of the other women, she had not—yet—shared Diccon’s news. Instead, she glanced frequently toward the entrance to the mine.
“She’s waiting for the men to join them,” Phillipe said. “She’s waiting to tell whoever’s in charge.”
Caleb nodded. “I wish we could stay and identify who that is, but we should get down and back to our camp before night falls.”
Night in the jungle was the definition of black; scrambling about on an unfamiliar hillside above an encampment of hostile armed mercenaries in the dark would be the definition of irresponsible.
Phillipe pulled a face, but nodded, and the four of them rose and scrambled back onto the animal track along which they’d climbed up. Once they reached the jungle floor, despite the fading light, they skirted wide through the deepening shadows. Giving the open gates of the compound and the well-armed guards a wide berth, they made their way back to their camp.
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The next morning, Caleb, Phillipe, and two of Caleb’s men, Ellis and Norton, returned to the rock shelf as soon as it was light. Light enough to see their way, and light enough to observe the activity in the compound.
Caleb settled on the granite shelf. “Let’s see if we can establish their routine.” From the pocket of his lightweight breeches, he drew out a pencil and a small notebook.
Phillipe, not an early riser, grunted. But he sank down beside Caleb, drew up his knees, rested his chin upon them, and focused his heavy-lidded gaze on the compound far below.
Over the course of the next hours, they watched the camp come awake. The guards changed at six o’clock. Shortly after, the captives straggled out of the barrack-like huts in which they’d slept and tended to their ablutions in the lean-tos built against the sides. Some hung laundry on lines strung at the rear of the long huts. Eventually, each crossed to the awning-covered open-air kitchen on the opposite side of the compound to the mine to fetch their breakfast, then carried their plate and mug back to the large fire pit and settled on the logs to eat.
The mercenaries also breakfasted, in their case under another palm-thatched awning erected in front of the guard tower, close by the kitchen. From their position on the rock shelf above and to the rear of the compound, Caleb and his men could get no clear view of the mercenaries as they broke their fast.
Caleb grunted. “I would have liked to get a look at this Dubois and his lieutenants.” They all knew that the mercenaries they’d seen thus far were followers, not leaders.
In contrast, they were fairly certain who among the male captives were the leaders—the officers.
“That’s Hopkins—the one just joining the other three.” Caleb focused on the four men who sat together at the side of the fire pit closest to the mine. “I met his sister in Southampton. They share that same odd-colored hair.”
“I’m fairly certain,” Phillipe said, his eyes narrowed on the group, “that the lean, brown-haired one will prove to be Hillsythe. He looks like I imagine one of your Wolverstone’s men would look. Which leaves the other two as Fanshawe and Dixon.”
“That matches their bearings,” Caleb said. “From the way they hold themselves, they must be either army or navy.”
They watched, but gained no further clues as to who was whom among the captives. Caleb made a note of their number. “I make it twenty-three men all told, six women, and twenty-four children.”
Phillipe stirred. “Most of the children are young—less than ten or so. There are only five who are older—four boys and that fair-haired girl.”
“I think,” Caleb said, studying the girl, “that they must be the ones Robert and Aileen had to allow to be taken.”
Phillipe nodded grimly. “I read that in Robert’s journal.”
After the meal, the captives dispersed. The men headed for the mine in groups, followed by most of the children. A few of the children, all girls, went to an awning-shaded work area closer to the rear of the compound—closer to the base of the cliff from which the men watched. The girls picked up small hammers and started to take rocks from one pile, tapping each, then sorting them into two piles, one much larger than the other.
After a moment of studying them, Phillipe offered, “I think they’re sorting the raw ore into the chunks that might have diamonds and those that most likely don’t.”
On quitting the fire pit, the women carried the tin plates and bowls back to the kitchen, then they retreated to a hut that sat directly behind the long central barracks that housed the mercenaries. An armed guard patrolled the area before the hut’s door, but as with all the guards, including the pair who had climbed to the tower and the fresh pair of guards who had slouched into position on the recently opened gates, he appeared utterly confident and clearly expected no threat.
Sitting on Caleb’s other side, Norton humphed. “It’s as if the guards think they’re just there for show.”
Miss Fortescue was the last of the women to enter the hut—the one Diccon had dubbed the cleaning shed. There was something in the way Katherine Fortescue held her head that effectively conveyed her complete disregard for the mercenaries about her. It wasn’t as overt as contempt but was a subtle defiance nonetheless.
Regardless of his absorption with jotting down everything useful he could about the camp, Caleb had spent long minutes drinking in every aspect of the delectable Miss Fortescue. For despite the privations of her captivity, she was enchanting, with her brown hair shining and with features that, as far as Caleb could make out, were striking and fine, set in a heart-shaped face. As for her figure, not even the drab, all-but-shapeless gowns that all the women had, apparently, been given to wear could hide her nicely rounded curves.
Regardless of the situation, his interest in Miss Fortescue was a real and vital thing—definitely there and, quite surprising to him, distinctly stronger and more compulsive than such attractions customarily were. Why a woman he’d never even met should so effortlessly capture his attention—fix his senses and hold his focus—he couldn’t explain.
“I haven’t been able to count all the mercenaries yet,” Phillipe said, “but Diccon’s number of twenty-four in camp at the moment, plus Dubois, seems about right.”
Reluctantly eschewing his thoughts of Katherine Fortescue, Caleb jotted the number in his notebook, then looked down at the compound once more.
Four of the male captives—none of them the officers, all of whom had vanished into the mine—had hung back in a group to one side of the mine entrance. As Caleb watched, two mercenaries ambled out from the central barracks and, each holstering a pistol, walked to join the group.
Nearing the four captives, one of the mercenaries waved the men to a cart parked nearby. Two large water barrels and four large cans for filling them sat on the cart. The four men fell in; they lifted the cart’s axle and started the cart rolling across the compound toward the gate.
Caleb watched the men angle the cart through the gate, then turn in the direction of the lake. “Hmm.”
The animal track they used to reach the rock shelf, if followed in the opposite direction, ultimately led down to the lake. On the previous day, they’d joined and later left the track halfway up the hillside and hadn’t noticed the proximity of the lake, but that morning, a glimmer of light off the water had flashed through the trees and drawn their collective eye. They’d made a brief detour; they hadn’t wanted to be there when the men with their guards came to fill the compound’s barrels. They’d lingered only long enough to fix the scene in their minds. The lake was fed by a stream rushing down the hillside; it was small, but from its intense color, it was reasonably deep. A short, narrow wharf jutted out along one bank, no doubt built to facilitate drawing water for the camp; on all the other banks, dense vegetation crowded the shoreline.
Caleb, Phillipe, Norton, and Ellis continued to watch the compound, but captives and mercenaries alike seemed to have settled to their morning’s duties. The only people coming and going were the children who occasionally emerged from the mine, lugging woven baskets filled with loose rocks that they added to the pile the girls were sorting, then returned to the mine.
Letting his thoughts about the lake slide to the back of his mind, Caleb spent some time drawing a detailed map of the compound, marking in all the buildings and structures and noting the position and direction of the tracks, including the animal track leading to the rock shelf, plus the location of their camp in the jungle clearing and the position of the lake.
After a moment, working from memory, he added a crude sketch of the lake itself. He studied the sketch for several minutes, then glanced at Phillipe. “Those weapons we took from Kale and his men.” They’d gathered all the weapons before burying Kale and his crew, and had searched and removed more from the buildings in the slavers’ camp, then they’d bundled the weapons up and brought them along in case of future need. “There are far more than we could ever use ourselves. What about creating a cache nearby—somewhere those in the compound could get to when the time to fight arrives?”
Phillipe lightly shrugged. “Why not? Better than just discarding them when we leave—no sense wasting good weapons.” Briefly, he studied Caleb’s eyes, then faintly smiled. “Where were you thinking of burying this cache?”
Caleb grinned. “The lake. There was a mound just beyond the end of the wharf.” He pointed on his sketch; Phillipe, Norton, and Ellis leaned closer to look. “If we buried the cache there, it would be easy for those in the compound to get to. And they only send two lackadaisical guards with four men—that’s not bad odds.”
Phillipe nodded. “That’s also an easy place to describe to those in the compound.”
“And as we’re only talking of a month,” Caleb said, “two at the most, before a rescue force arrives, then even with light wrappings, the powder should still be useable.”
Norton pointed down into the compound. “There are the men bringing back the water barrels.” They watched the men haul the now-laden cart through the gates.
“The guards have returned, too,” Phillipe noted, “so from what Diccon told us, the lake should be safe for us to visit from now through the rest of the day.”
“Perfect.” Caleb glanced at Ellis. “Go back to camp and tell Quilley to take three men, wrap up the excess weapons and ammunition, and go to the lake and bury the lot behind the mound at the end of the wharf. Go with him and make sure he chooses the right spot.”
“Tell Ducasse to take two of my men and help,” Phillipe said. “More hands and it’ll be done that much faster.”
Caleb endorsed the order with a nod.
Ellis snapped off a salute and scrambled off the ledge, heading for the track down the hillside.
Caleb, Phillipe, and Norton settled to watching the compound again.
After some time, Phillipe said, “I take it we’re watching for Diccon to leave.”
Caleb nodded. “We came upon him about noon, and he’d already half filled his basket, so I would expect him to leave fairly soon.”
“I saw him go into the kitchen,” Norton said. “He helped the women take the plates and bowls back, but he didn’t come out again.”
“Ah, but there he is now.” Phillipe sat up and nodded down at the compound.
Caleb watched as the skinny figure of Diccon, readily identified by his bright mop of hair, skipped out from under the palm-thatched overhang shielding the kitchen. He was swinging two baskets, one from either hand. But instead of heading for the gates, Diccon circled the guard tower. Caleb frowned. “Why two baskets, and where is he going?”
They had their answer in another minute. Diccon went to the cleaning shed. He climbed the steps to the door and knocked. The door opened, and he waited a moment. Then he backed down the steps, and Katherine Fortescue joined him.
Caleb blinked. He watched as Miss Fortescue took one of the baskets, then, side by side, she and Diccon headed for the gates.
The guards saw them coming and didn’t react in any way; they watched the pair walk out of the compound and into the jungle.
Caleb stared at Diccon and his Miss Katherine as, heads high, they blithely marched on. Then they disappeared from view. He frowned. “That seems just a tad too good to be true.”
Phillipe looked faintly grim. “The boy said nothing about anyone else coming out with him.”
It fell to Caleb, as commander of the mission, to weigh every factor that might prove dangerous to their men. That Miss Fortescue might have told Dubois what Diccon had told her…
He didn’t want to believe it, but…he grimaced. “Let’s watch and see if anyone else follows them.”
But no one did. No one seemed to have any interest whatever in the whereabouts of the pair who had, supposedly, gone foraging.
After thirty minutes, Caleb looked at Phillipe.
Phillipe looked back and shrugged. “I would point out that women make excellent traitors, but…who knows?”
Caleb grunted. He stuffed his notebook back into his pocket, then rolled to his feet. “I don’t see Miss Fortescue as a likely traitor, but as matters stand, I can think of only one way to find out.”
* * *
By the time Katherine had put seventeen of the large nuts she’d agreed to gather for Dubois and his men into her basket, her nerves were jumping. From the moment she’d grasped the implications of what Diccon had told her regarding who he’d met in the jungle the previous day, she’d been trapped on a peculiar seesaw of emotions—vacillating dramatically between cynically weary disbelief and the burgeoning of unexpected hope. Up, then down, almost to the rhythm of her breathing.
Despite their resolution to find some way to escape, every one of the captured adults had long ago given up all hope of rescue—of someone from outside arriving to save them. As the days, then weeks, then months had rolled past, they’d lost all faith in anyone from the settlement mounting a mission to save them from the fate they all knew would ultimately befall them.
None harbored any illusions about the end Dubois and his masters had in mind for them.
But Diccon had said that the men—the mysterious captain and his crew—had come direct from London, and if Diccon had understood correctly, they were part of a long-running push to rescue all those taken.
She’d discovered that learning of a possible route to freedom after one had believed all such possibility extinguished could be unsettling. Indeed, distinctly unnerving.
She dropped another nut into her basket. Unable to resist the impulse, she cast a searching glance around, but saw and heard no hint of anyone approaching. Diccon had insisted that they had to come to this part of the jungle—between the lake and the track north—and go about collecting fruit and nuts, and then the men would come and find them.
Yesterday, once Diccon had poured out the sum of his discovery, she’d immediately seen the potential danger and had sworn him to secrecy—only to discover that the mysterious Captain Caleb had been before her. She wasn’t sure whether to be encouraged or concerned by such foresight; had he acted for the same reason she had, or had he had some ulterior motive?
Regardless, she’d immediately wanted to take Diccon to speak with Dixon and Hillsythe, the de facto leaders of the captives, but as Diccon could not go into the mine and there’d been guards hovering by the entrance, she’d had to wait until after the evening meal before she’d been able to engineer a suitably private meeting.
Dixon and Hillsythe had listened to her condensed version of Diccon’s tale, then had called Diccon over. After she’d convinced Diccon that his Captain Caleb—the only name Diccon had been given—wouldn’t mind him repeating his story to Dixon and Hillsythe, they’d taken Diccon over his report again. Hillsythe in particular—to this day, Katherine did not understand exactly what his background was—had focused on the captain; with a sense of suppressed but building excitement, Hillsythe had asked Diccon to describe the man. Hillsythe had been well-nigh transformed by Diccon’s reply; clearly in the grip of some heightened anticipation, Hillsythe had called Will Hopkins and Fanshawe over and had Diccon repeat his description of the captain to them.
“Frobisher.” Will had breathed the name, then glanced at Fanshawe. “A Captain Caleb who looks like that and who has led a crew here on a clandestine operation…that has to be Caleb Frobisher.”
His eyes alight, Fanshawe had nodded. “And if it is he…damn. This is really happening.” Enthusiasm of a sort Katherine hadn’t heard for months had colored his tone. Fanshawe had met Hillsythe’s, then Dixon’s eyes. “There really is a rescue underway.”
Despite the excitement in his eyes, Hillsythe had swiftly said, “We need to keep this to ourselves—at least until we learn more.” He’d glanced at Diccon. “You, too, Diccon.” Hillsythe had paused, then added, “As matters stand, you’re a vital cog in this, m’lad—you’re our only way of maintaining contact with those outside.”
That had been Katherine’s cue. “Actually,” she’d said, “I asked Dubois this morning if one of the women, taking turns, couldn’t be allowed to go out with Diccon. We bargained—you know how he is. But the upshot is that he agreed as a trial to let me go into the jungle with Diccon in return for me bringing back those nuts he’s particularly fond of.”
Dixon had grinned. “It seems our luck’s finally turned. For once, matters are falling our way.”
Hillsythe had nodded. “That’s excellent—an unlooked-for advantage.” He’d looked at Diccon. “That doesn’t make your role any less important. Miss Fortescue can be our mouthpiece, the one more able to tell the captain all he needs to know, but she and we all will be depending on you to guide her to the captain and his men and get her back again, too. No one knows the jungle around about anywhere near as well as you do.”
Katherine had smiled at Hillsythe. That had been exactly the right thing to say.
They’d sent a happy Diccon back to join his friends. The four men had looked at each other, then Dixon had said, “Frobisher—assuming it’s he—said he and his men were the scouting party.” He’d looked at Katherine. “Katherine, my dear, we need you to go out and learn what the situation really is before any hopes are raised.”
She’d understood perfectly. To have lost all hope, then have it handed back, only to have it snatched away again…that would be beyond cruel. She’d nodded. “Of course. I’ll go out with Diccon tomorrow and meet with…Captain Frobisher and learn all I can.”
So here she was, collecting nuts by rote, but… “Where the devil is Frobisher?” she muttered.
She bent over to pick up yet another nut—and a frisson of awareness swept over her nape. She abruptly straightened and looked around, searching through the shadows beneath the trees.
And he was suddenly there, walking out from the shadows, materializing from the gloom. She swung to face him and swiftly took in all she could see—all her senses could glean. The confidence in his easy stride, his lean, clean-cut features, his square chin, and the thick, dark locks that overhung a broad brow. His relaxed expression contrasted with the sword that rode on his hip—so very comfortably, it seemed. He was at least six feet tall and broad-shouldered, all lean muscle and masculine grace, then her gaze rose to his face, and she noted the network of lines at the corners of his eyes that she’d noticed many sailors bore. Then her gaze skated down over his strong nose and fastened on his mouth.
On a pair of mobile lips that looked like they curved readily…
And there her gaze remained as he halted before her.
With an effort, she managed to haul her gaze to his eyes. The lines at the corners crinkled as he smiled.
She felt her temperature rise and feared it showed in her cheeks. But great heavens! Smiles like that—on men like him—should be outlawed.
“Good morning. Miss Fortescue, I believe?”
His voice was deep, slightly rumbly, and ruffled her senses like an invisible hand.
She managed a nod. “Ah…yes.”
So eloquent! She nearly shook her head in an attempt to shake her wits back into place. Instead, she forced herself to look aside, to glance at Diccon; he’d drifted away searching for fruit and berries.
He’d heard Frobisher’s voice and came running up.
She caught the boy to her, draping a protective arm over his shoulders. “Diccon told us you had come to learn more about the camp so that a rescue could be mounted.” Reminding herself of Frobisher’s supposed purpose helped her stiffen her spine. She raised her gaze to his eyes once more. “Is that so?”
He inclined his head, but his expression hardening, he lifted his gaze from her face and scanned the vegetation about them. Then he returned his gaze to her eyes, and all trace of the lighthearted gentleman had vanished. “Forgive me for asking this, Miss Fortescue, but I must. Don’t rip up at me.” He lowered his voice. “Are you truly free of Dubois? Free to talk, free to take back what I say to your colleagues at the mine?” He paused, then, his blue gaze locked on her eyes, he asked, “Can I trust you?”
“Yes.” The word came spontaneously, and she realized she meant it on every level. How odd. She didn’t trust others all that easily. Fate and hard-won experience had taught her bitter lessons she’d never forgotten. But there was something about him—this man who had, against all hope, walked out of the jungle to meet her—that spoke to her and reassured her at some level she didn’t comprehend. She nodded and repeated, “Yes. You can trust all of us.” She gestured in the direction of the camp. “We’ve worked together for months. If we had any who might have been tempted to collude with Dubois and his men, we would have known long ago.”
She glanced at Diccon and realization dawned. “But if it’s my coming out with Diccon that has worried you, I had already asked Dubois for permission for the women, one a day in rotation, to go out with Diccon. Dubois agreed to a trial, but with only me being allowed out and that only for an hour, and only to collect these nuts”—she gestured to the contents of her basket—“that he particularly enjoys. He very likely hopes his conditions will drive a wedge between me and the other women by making me appear to be favored.” She grinned cynically and glanced up at Frobisher. “That’s how he thinks. Unfortunately for Dubois, it was another woman’s idea—I just offered to ask.”
He frowned. “I need you to tell me about Dubois—about how he manages the camp and all of you.”
She hesitated, her gaze on his face. His handsome face, but this time, she looked beyond the glamour. “First…will you tell me your name, please?”
He met her eyes, then he stepped back and swept her a bow. “Captain Caleb Frobisher, of Frobisher Shipping Company, sailing out of Aberdeen.” Despite his level tone, as he straightened, he waggled his brows at her.
She nearly laughed in surprise, threw him a mock-disapproving look instead, but the silly byplay reassured her. “Hopkins and Fanshawe thought that was who you were.”
“Ah, of course. I don’t know them personally, but they would know my older brothers.”
She peered into the shadows behind him. “Diccon said you had twenty-four men with you.”
Caleb grinned down at Diccon, who had remained beside Katherine and was staring up at Caleb with rapt attention. “That’s correct, but most are busy burying some weapons in a cache by the lake, and others are watching the compound or guarding our camp. I only brought one man with me—a friend, another captain, who I’m grateful saw fit to join me in this mission.” He returned his gaze to Katherine’s face. “With your permission?”
When she nodded, he waved to Phillipe to join them.
Phillipe walked out of the jungle. Caleb performed the introductions—and discovered he wasn’t all that happy to have to watch Phillipe bow over Miss Fortescue’s hand and press a kiss to her knuckles.
He knew it was just Phillipe’s way, yet…
But on retrieving her hand with no more than a polite smile, Miss Fortescue immediately returned her bright hazel eyes to Caleb’s face. “Weapons?”
He felt oddly mollified. “Indeed.” He looked at Diccon. “Perhaps you’d better gather more fruit so that you can go back with Miss Fortescue. She only has another twenty minutes or so left.”
Diccon flashed Caleb a swift grin. “All right. Will you still be here?”
“Yes.” Caleb looked around and spotted a fallen log; he pointed to it. “We’ll be over there.”
“Right-o!” Diccon smiled at Miss Fortescue. “There’s a big berry bush I passed yesterday nearer to the lake. I’ll be back in no time.”
“I’ll wait for you.” Miss Fortescue watched Diccon run off, then she looked at Caleb. “Sadly, there’s no need to protect him. He told us he thought that you and your men had killed Kale and his slavers. Is that correct?”
Caleb kept his gaze on Diccon’s dwindling figure. “We didn’t just kill Kale and his crew—we wiped all sign of them from this earth.” He looked back and met Miss Fortescue’s pretty hazel eyes without apology. “That’s where the weapons come from.”
Her gaze remained steady on his face. “Once that news is known in the compound, you’ll be feted as a hero. For all of us, Kale was the instigator of our captivity.”
Caleb hesitated, then said, “He might have been the one who arranged your kidnappings, but the instigators…sadly, they’re closer to home.” He saw the questions leap to her eyes, but forced himself to wave them aside—to wave her to the fallen log. “You don’t have much time, and there’s a lot of information we need, as well as news we should impart.”
She nodded and accompanied him to the log. He reached for her hand—felt the delicate bones under his larger, stronger fingers; he gripped gently and handed her to the log. She drew in her skirts and sat, with an unconscious grace that would have done credit to a ton drawing room.
Rather than sit beside her—he wasn’t at all sure that would be a good idea, Phillipe’s presence notwithstanding—Caleb sat on the ground facing her, and Phillipe fluidly sat alongside him.
The instant they’d settled, she asked, “What do you need to know?”
Caleb thought of all they’d seen and noticed about the captives. “How does Dubois run the camp?”
She held his gaze. “By intimidation.”
Phillipe frowned. “How so? We haven’t seen any sign of aggression from him toward any of those he holds.”
“He doesn’t need to convince us of anything.” Miss Fortescue’s slim fingers twined, then gripped. “Let me tell you the tale those who were the first to be brought to the compound told me.”
In an even tone, with no real inflection, she proceeded to tell them of an act of violence, of viciousness, that made them both pale under their tans and tied their stomachs in knots. Caleb literally felt nauseated.
She concluded, “That girl was the only captive lost to us.” She paused, then went on, “Dixon, Harriet Frazier, Hopkins, and Fanshawe, as well as several of the men and quite a few of the children, were here at the time. Subsequently, if there’s the slightest sign of resistance, Dubois will pick some scapegoat and make threats—quietly, calmly, and utterly cold-bloodedly. And every one of us knows he’ll carry out those threats to the letter if we give him the excuse. Beneath his outwardly controlled demeanor lurks a monster.”
Her expression bleak, she met Caleb’s gaze. “That’s how he controls us. He never threatens the one he wants to cow, but whoever he believes that person is closest to—that person’s emotional Achilles’ heel.”
“Like he threatens Diccon with his friends’ lives?” Caleb asked.
She nodded. “Exactly. So we do what we must to survive—to keep all of us alive. We do what he asks, exactly what he asks…but no more than that.” She straightened her spine and lifted her chin. “But that doesn’t mean we’re not actively fighting him—we just fight in a different way.”
Caleb had to admire her quiet dignity. “How so?”
“We’ve been trying to work out a way to escape, all of us together, but how to deal with the mercenaries is a problem we’ve yet to solve. In the meantime…we let Dubois believe he manages the mine, but in reality, in that respect, we manage him. He’s truly complacent over his hold on us—and in the way he thinks of it, that’s understandable enough. He’s clever and intelligent, and used to succeeding, but like many people who are very sure of themselves, he doesn’t appreciate what he doesn’t know.”
She looked from Caleb to Phillipe, then returned her gaze to Caleb’s face. “In this case, what Dubois doesn’t know is how a mine really operates. His understanding of that is very limited. Once Hillsythe arrived…he saw it and explained how we could use Dubois’s lack of real knowledge against him and so manage how fast the diamonds are mined.” She paused and drew in a breath. “We all know that once the diamonds run out, the mine will be closed, and we’ll all be killed. Even the children understand that—they might be young, but they’re from the slums, and when it comes to survival, they’re very quick. So we manage the output from the mine with a view to eking it out for long enough for us to find some way to escape.”
Caleb nodded decisively. “That’s going to fit nicely with our mission. We’re here to learn the location of the camp and ensure that gets back to London. Whatever else we can learn of the mine, of Dubois and his men and the overall operation, will assist mightily in formulating a viable rescue mission, which, as I understand it and now fully expect, will be the next stage.”
She frowned. “This rescue force will come from London?” When Caleb nodded, she asked, “Why? Why hasn’t anyone from the settlement come to find us? Why can’t the soldiers from the fort or the men from the navy ships come to free us?”
Caleb grimaced. “That’s what I alluded to earlier—the villains closer to home. We know there are several—more than one, most likely more than two—people in positions of authority in the settlement who are actively involved in this.” He met her gaze. “Lady Holbrook was one. She’s now fled the colony, but we know there are others still in place. The naval attaché, Muldoon, plays an active part, but who his coconspirators are is at present unknown, so we can’t afford to raise a force from the settlement. By the time such a force reaches here…to be blunt, it’s likely all the captives in the compound will have been executed, any evidence in the compound destroyed, and Dubois and his men will be long gone.”
She’d paled slightly, but her expression hardened, and she nodded. “I understand. That makes sense of the silence until now.”
Caleb hurried to add, “That’s not to say that those kidnapped have been forgotten by their friends in the settlement. Rather, because of the activity of the villains and their associates, said friends have been unable to get anything done. For instance, the Sherbrooks haven’t forgotten you, but their pleas to Governor Holbrook were turned aside, Holbrook having been duped by his wife.” Concisely—and speaking ever more rapidly—he gave her a severely edited account of his brother Declan’s mission, followed by that of his brother Robert, the sum of what they’d discovered, and the conclusions that had been drawn. “So, you see, it’s imperative that we get news of the mine’s location plus as much information about Dubois’s operation as we can back to London, so that an effective rescue can be launched with all speed from there.”
She nodded. “I cannot tell you how…heartening it is to know that there are people who care and who are working to free us. That someone—some group—understands the situation and is truly committed to getting us out of this jungle alive.” She hesitated, then more quietly said, “We’d almost lost hope, but this news will give everyone heart again.”
“That’s all to the good,” Caleb said, “but please make sure everyone understands that even with us sending word as fast as any ship can go, it’s going to be weeks yet before any rescue force can reach here.”
“How long, exactly?”
He frowned. “I suspect it’ll be at least a month.”
Phillipe snorted. “Even with your family’s ships, it’ll be more like six weeks.”
Caleb caught Katherine’s gaze. “Do you think you and the others will be able to stretch the mining out that long?”
She sat straighter. “Obviously, we’ll have to. I’m sure with rescue pending, we’ll manage somehow.”
Phillipe looked at Caleb. “You should check the list of the missing.”
“Ah—yes.” Caleb drew his notebook from his pocket and flipped it open. “These are the people known to have gone missing from Freetown. Obviously, we haven’t got all the names, but by the same token, we don’t know if all these people were kidnapped for the mine.” He read down the list.
Katherine confirmed each and every name. When he came to the end, she reiterated, “All of those people are at the mine and still alive. As I said, the only one lost was that young girl. She was called Daisy. None of the others who were kidnapped know her full name. Of course, we’ve had accidents and injuries, but Dubois is motivated to keep us alive and functioning so we can continue to produce diamonds as swiftly as possible, and his current difficulty in getting more men—let alone replacements—ensures he continues to treat us well.” She lifted a shoulder. “Essentially, he can’t afford not to.”
Phillipe shot Caleb a glance. “That’s what’s behind the medical hut.”
When Katherine nodded, Caleb said, “Diccon will be back any minute. Is there anything more—any insights you can share—that will help us better understand what’s happening in the camp?”
She hesitated for only a heartbeat, then said, “There’s a stalemate of sorts operating at the moment, holding everything in check. Dubois is under increasing pressure to produce more diamonds more quickly—as we interpret it, to mine out the deposit as fast as possible, so that those behind the scheme can order us all killed and protect themselves from any risk of exposure.”
Caleb grimaced. “That’s almost certainly correct.”
“Against that, however—and you need to understand that Dubois never cares if we overhear his discussions with his men—we know he, Dubois, has been stymied in pushing ahead by a lack of more men. He’s been calling for more for weeks, but Kale hasn’t been supplying as many as Dubois needs.” Her lips curved with satisfaction. “And now, of course, Kale won’t be supplying any more at all.”
Phillipe pulled a face. “We’ll have to see how that plays out. Dubois doesn’t strike me as the sort to let Kale’s disappearance stop him for long.”
“No,” she admitted with a dip of her head. “But it will slow things down even further, which is all to our good. Dubois doesn’t dare push us—the workers he already has—too hard for fear of accidents and injuries, which will only result in lower production. So he’s caught—he has to simply wait for more men. That helps us keep production from the mine at what we hope will be a safely low level.”
Diccon appeared, sliding through the palms.
They all rose. Caleb felt a flaring impulse to reach for Katherine Fortescue’s hand; he thrust both his hands into his breeches pockets instead. “Last question—I assume all those held captive have elected a leader. Who is it?”
“We actually have two—Dixon and Hillsythe. Dixon manages the mine, and Hillsythe plots our way. The others—their lieutenants, I suppose—are Lieutenants Hopkins and Fanshawe, and I speak for the women and children.”
Caleb spared a smile for Diccon, but immediately returned his gaze to Katherine Fortescue’s face. “If there’s any way to do it, I would like reports from Dixon and Hillsythe. They’ll know what’s needed, and such reports would be invaluable.”
She nodded. “I’ll ask.” She paused, then added, “Given the reports will have to be done in secret, they will almost certainly take more than a day to prepare.” She met Caleb’s gaze. “I’ll come out again the day after tomorrow. If Dixon and Hillsythe have the reports ready, I’ll bring them then.”
“Thank you.” Caleb bent and picked up her basket. He handed it to her. “One thing—please stress to everyone concerned that at no point should they do anything to arouse suspicion.”
She nodded and turned to Diccon. She took his hand, then glanced at Caleb. “Thank you.” Her gaze moved briefly to include Phillipe, then returned to Caleb’s face. “I’ll see you in two days.”
She turned away, and she and Diccon started toward the compound.
Caleb and Phillipe watched them go, then once the pair were far enough ahead, started trailing behind.
They halted deep in the jungle shadows, well concealed from the guards on the gate, and watched Katherine Fortescue and Diccon walk stoically back into captivity.
After a moment, Phillipe stirred. “She told us quite a lot. Dubois sounds…dangerous.”
“Hmm. And this bind he’s in—more production on the one hand, no ability to achieve it on the other. That must be frustrating, yet he doesn’t seem to have lashed out.”
“Which only proves my point,” Phillipe said. “Dangerous. Any man can play the bully. A sadistic bully who can control himself…that’s something else again.”
Caleb grunted and turned away. “Let’s get back to the camp. I’d better start writing my own report, because heaven knows, these people need rescuing.”
* * *
After seeing Diccon on his way to the kitchen with his basket full of berries, Katherine reined in her giddy, rather scattered thoughts, mentally girded her loins, hefted her basket, and climbed the steps to the mercenaries’ barracks.
She walked along the narrow porch to the single door, which lay toward the left of the front of the long building and was presently propped open. Dubois’s “office” lay beyond the door in the space at the end of the single room, separated from the bunk beds by a communal area with stools and low tables where the off-duty mercenaries lounged and played cards. Out of ingrained courtesy, she tapped on the door frame, waited for a heartbeat, then calmly walked in. She spared not a glance for the other mercenaries sprawled at their ease but fixed her gaze on Dubois’s desk and the man himself, leaning back in his chair behind it.
There was a wide window set in the side wall of the barracks. Through it, Dubois could see the entrance to the mine. He appeared to be staring moodily at that sight, but as she approached, he turned to study her.
By anyone’s measure, he cut a commanding figure, with a powerful physique, thick dark hair, and even features. He had oddly pale hazel eyes; she often thought that cold steel had somehow got mixed into the hue. Hazel eyes weren’t usually chilling, but Dubois’s gaze certainly was.
“Miss Fortescue.” Dubois didn’t smile, yet she detected amusement in his tone. Much like a cat viewing a potential mouse. His gaze fell to the basket. “I take it your foraging was successful?”
“Indeed.” She placed the basket on the desk. “Here are your nuts. I quite enjoyed my time beyond the palisade, but I confess I hadn’t expected the atmosphere beneath the trees to be quite so oppressive.” She frowned as if somewhat chagrined. “I suspect I had better not indulge again tomorrow—not so soon.” She forced herself to meet his gaze. “Perhaps one of the other women might take my place and fetch nuts for you tomorrow?”
Dubois’s lips eased. He reached out and pulled the basket toward him. “I don’t think that will be necessary. I believe I will be quite content with nuts delivered every second day.” He looked steadily at her. “By you.” He paused for a beat, then stated, “Thank you, Miss Fortescue. That will be all.”
Katherine suppressed a derisive snort. She contented herself with a tiny, haughty inclination of her head, then she turned and left the room.
The man made her skin crawl. His habit of trying to bait her—and the others who were well born, too—by subtly lording it over them added another layer of grating irritation.
But they had all long ago resolved not to react—not to play the mouse to Dubois’s cat. As he enjoyed the hunt so much, he tended to let them go—the better to taunt them the next time.
Descending once more to the dust of the compound, she drew in a deep breath—and finally allowed everything she’d learned in the jungle that morning to surge to the forefront of her brain.
Rescue was on the way. They hadn’t been forgotten.
She felt hope, real hope, bubbling up inside—a startling, entirely unexpected upwelling of an emotion she’d thought excised from her soul.
She remained where she was, staring unseeing out of the gates while she considered who she should speak with first, what was most important to be communicated, and how best to achieve that.
Over and above all other considerations, she resolved that, whatever steps she and subsequently the other captives took, they would need to ensure they did absolutely nothing to jeopardize the safety of Captain Caleb Frobisher and his men—for all their sakes.
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