Ice Bound: King's Convicts II, page 1
Part One: Below
Part Two: Aftermath
Part Three: Repercussions
Part Four: Sounds in the Dark
Part Five: Monsters
Part Six: Retribution
Excerpt from Ice Forged
More from Gail Z. Martin
About the Author
King’s Convicts II
A Blaine McFadden Adventure
by Gail Z. Martin
© 2015 Gail Z. Martin. All rights reserved. This story may not be retransmitted, posted or reused in any way without the written permission of the author.
PART ONE: Below
“Stop wasting time! We’ve got rubies to dig, and I want to see that new vein dug now!” The prison guard assigned to overseeing the miners brought a whip down hard across the back of the nearest man. Shackled at the ankle to two other inmates, the unfortunate miner could barely shift his position to escape the blow.
“It’s going to bring the roof down on us!” Piran Rowse shouted back stubbornly.
“Just an excuse not to do your job.” The overseer’s broad features and snub nose had earned him the nickname of Pig-face among the inmates. His face was flushed with anger, and he lifted his whip to strike again, snapping the leather against another inmate at the rear of the group.
Blaine ‘Mick’ McFadden was shackled between Piran on one side and Ernest on the other. They were in the middle of the large underground room being mined for rubies, one of the most profitable exports that the prison colony of Velant sent home to the kingdom of Donderath. Some of the men were toward the back of the room, while others were closer to the opening that led off the tunnel connecting this section to other parts of the sprawling mine deep beneath the arctic ice of Edgeland. And in Blaine’s opinion, Piran was right.
Tadd, one of the prisoners near the back of the group, turned to face the overseer. “You get us killed bringing down the roof, and you’re sure to miss your quota this month,” he said defiantly.
Pig-face’s eyes flashed with malice. He signaled to the guards, who closed in on Tadd. One of them landed a hard punch to the gut, doubling the prisoner over, while another brought his knee up sharply, breaking Tadd’s nose. Tadd’s shackle-mates, Bickle and Albert, were fastened by chains to each other’s leg irons. They could not move far enough away to escape being drawn into the beating. The guards’ fists and their short wooden staves flew, thudding against flesh and bone. The prisoners dared not defend themselves, nor did the others dare intervene without bringing down even worse on themselves.
After a few moments that seemed to last forever, Pig-face called off his guards. Tadd was bleeding from his nose and mouth, and one eye was nearly swollen shut. Bickle and Albert had not fared better. But none of the injuries was severe enough to stop them from mining. In the six months Blaine had been a prisoner in Velant, he had quickly learned that the guards were experts in inflicting pain in ways that did not compromise an inmate’s ability to work. Usually. Unless they hate the son of a bitch too much to care, and lose control. Another reason why Piran should watch his mouth.
“This is your last warning,” Pig-face shouted. “Get to work, or you’ll work under the lash, by Charrot!”
Blaine and the others turned back to their pickaxes and the rock walls from which they dug out the rubies. He and the others were all exiles, convicts condemned to a lifetime in the far north for crimes real or imagined. They were expendable, and their lives were far less important to Pig-face or Commander Prokief, the warden, than the rubies they mined.
Blaine’s pickaxe rose and fell in the rhythm he had long ago mastered. Busy enough to spare him from Pig-face’s whip, but not any more industrious than absolutely necessary.
Rubies were highly prized among the nobility back in Donderath, and valuable for trade with the Cross-Sea Kingdoms and the Lesser Kingdoms. While the herring that was caught, salted and packed into barrels by Edgeland’s fishermen were largely for consumption within Donderath, rubies brought new money into the kingdom.
“He’s going to be the death of us, one way or the other,” Piran muttered, moving as slowly as he dared without drawing Pig-face’s ire—and whip.
“You’re going to be the death of us, if you don’t stop pissing him off,” Blaine replied.
“You know Tadd’s right. We’ve all been saying it. We’re going too deep. There should be more pillars left to hold up the roof. It’s a bloody death trap,” Piran added.
“Not much choice either way,” Ernest, the third man shackled in their trio whispered. “Get buried alive when the roof falls in, or get beaten to death by the guards—who will take any excuse they can get. One of those ways is faster than the other; maybe less painful, too.”
Ernest had a point. Velant’s guards were as much prisoners as their charges, assigned to the arctic penal colony in order to get rid of men who were too brutal to be tolerated in regular society. So they were transferred to Velant where they also enforced the law both among the prisoners and those who earned their Tickets of Leave to become colonists. None of them were ever going back to Donderath. Not even Prokief, Velant’s warden and the ‘governor’ of Edgeland.
Prokief had won King Merrill’s gratitude with a series of military victories in a previous conflict with Meroven. But those victories had been gained not by outstanding strategy but through sheer brutality, earning Prokief the nickname of the ‘Butcher of Breseshwa.’ When the fighting was over, the ruthlessness and willingness to commit slaughter that had won the day became a liability to the king, who ‘honored’ Prokief with the ‘promotion’ and shipped him off with the rest of the exiles.
Feeling the guards’ gaze on them, Blaine fell silent and returned to his work. Each triad of miners worked a different section of the rock all around the perimeter of the large, man-made cave. Periodically, they would fill a cart with their results and dump the chunks of rock into a large pile in the center, where other prisoners would haul the pieces to the surface. There, more inmates labored to break up the biggest chunks and separate out the rubies so that the cargo returning to Donderath would be as compact—and profitable—as possible.
Piran began to whistle. Half of the miners hated his whistling. The others were inclined to whistle along, or occasionally, sing. That alone might account for the disapproving glares and catcalls Piran received. Piran’s whistling tended to be more on-tune than the singing, and while Blaine did not mind, some of the others wasted no time making their annoyance clear.
“Pipe down, Rowse!”
“This ain’t a whorehouse—more’s the pity.”
“Stop your damned noise or I’ll close your mouth for you!”
Piran kept on whistling, switching frequently among tavern songs that everyone knew even if they only partly remembered the words. Between his own ability with his fists and the presence of the guards, Piran was not worried about retribution, and the grin on his face made it clear he relished tweaking those who disliked his music.
On good days, Blaine lost himself to the rhythm of the pickaxe, blanking his mind and stilling his thoughts. On bad days, memories crowded in on him; of his home at Glenreith, his brother Carr, and his sister Mari, his Aunt Judith, and his beloved Carensa. All of them were lost to him now, just as he was dead to them. No one returned from Velant except for the sailors onboard the ships that brought prisoners and supplies north and carried holds full of rubies and herring back.
It would be spring in Donderath. Trees would be green once more, farmers would be busy getting crops in the fields, and Glenreith would be bustling with all the tasks necessary to run a
Sometimes, he wondered whether Carensa would hold to her vow never to forget him. Part of him appreciated her declaration of undying love. But most of him wished better for her than a life of loneliness in pursuit of a lost cause. Much as he hated the thought of her in another man’s arms, it pained him worse to think of her ostracized for her association with him, alone for the rest of her life.
Resolutely, Blaine tried to push those thoughts from his mind. They served no purpose, and life in Velant was unrelentingly grim enough without dwelling on what could not be changed.
Piran whistled a tavern ditty. Across the way, Dunbar, one of the other miners assigned to the same barracks as Blaine and Piran, picked up the tune in a tolerable baritone voice, with lyrics which grew increasingly obscene as the song progressed. More of the inmates gradually joined in, off key and tone deaf, and for a while, the rhythm of their digging matched the beat of the song.
There was scant comfort to be had in Velant, but small shows of solidarity, like this, provided what little there was. While Blaine had earned his banishment as an unrepentant murderer, many of his fellow prisoners’ crimes were hardly worthy of exile. Petty theft, unpaid debts, embezzlement, and cheating on taxes were among the most frequent offenses. Others, like their bunkmate Dawe Killick, were the victims of trumped up charges by business rivals, jealous lovers, or someone who envied their land, lover, or possessions. They had been spared the noose, but Blaine was certain that he was not the only one who often wondered just what sort of ‘mercy’ that provided compared to the prospect of a quick, nearly painless death and an end to suffering.
And yet we still dodge the blow that would kill us, Blaine mused. Death’s close enough here every day. We all know how to die. Attack a guard. Defy orders. Attempt to escape. Break the rules once too often on a day when a guard is in a bad mood. It’s so easy to die here. We could all have it over with any time we choose, if that’s what we really wanted. But every time death gets close, we flinch away. Funny, how that works.
A sudden cracking noise silenced the whistling and song. Then thunder filled the mine as the roof of the back section collapsed in an avalanche of rock that clouded the air with dust and blotted out the dim light of the oil lanterns. Blaine tried to get out of the way, pulling with all his might on the chains that connected him to Piran and Ernest, stumbling and choking as grit filled his lungs and made his eyes tear until he could not see.
Guards were shouting, but Blaine could not make out what they said above the crash and rumble of the collapse. Men screamed in pain and fear. Some of the shrieks cut off suddenly, while others fell to low moans, the cries of the dying. No one was heeding the guards as a press of men pushed toward the exit, pressing against each other as they tripped on their shackles.
Guards blocked the doorway to the tunnels leading out of the mine. Pig-face stood behind them, and their fear of the overseer obviously outweighed their fear of dying from the cave-in because the guards stood their ground, using their whips and batons to push back the desperate prisoners who surged toward them, trying to escape.
“Stay back!” Pig-face roared. Whips cracked in the air for emphasis, lashing at the prisoners who dared to get too close to the line of guards. “No one is leaving.”
“The bloody roof’s caving in!” Ernest shouted. “What’s to say it won’t all fall in on us? Then who’s going to mine your bleedin’ rubies?”
“Silence!” Pig-face shouted. One of the men launched himself at the guards, dragging his hapless shackle-mates with him. The guard hit the man with his baton so hard it cracked his skull, and the prisoner went down in a heap, bloody and still.
“Try to push past the guards and I will see you lashed to the posts in the yard and whipped senseless before dinner!” Pig-face yelled. He was red in the face, eyes glinting with lunatic intensity. Blaine wondered if the overseer was more irate over the challenge to his authority than by the prospect of imminent death from the cave-in.
Just then, the next section of roof collapsed.
A curtain of falling rock crushed men beneath it, wiping out two rows of frightened miners. Their blood leaked from beneath the tumble of stone, mingling with the dust. Most of the lanterns had gone out, leaving the survivors in near-darkness. Behind them, they could hear the cries of the dying and the pleas of those trapped but not yet dead.
Instinctive fear of being buried alive outweighed Pig-face’s intimidation, and the terrified miners surged forward again, striking back at the guards in blind terror, ignoring the blows of the batons and the sting of the whips in their unthinking frenzy to escape certain death. As the rock continued to fall, the guards’ line broke and even they retreated into the corridor, heedless of Pig-face’s increasingly hysterical threats.
Men fell as their chains tripped them. Others stampeded over them, crushing flesh and bone beneath their boots as they struggled toward the corridor.
Blaine, Piran, and Ernest dodged to one side, between one of the largest pillars and the natural rock wall, a place Blaine hoped was least likely to collapse. It got them out of the frenzied press, where they were as much in danger of being trampled underfoot as they were being smashed by falling stone.
Finally, the roar of falling rock slowed, then stopped. Blaine found that he was holding his breath, both to keep out the choking dust and in mortal fear that the stone overhead might collapse. For a moment, the silence seemed as deafening as the thunder of the cave-in. The cries of the dying and trapped men had grown faint. Those lost in the first collapse might well be dead by now, and those in the successive cave-ins were muted by the additional volume of stone that buried them.
Dust covered everything. It clung to the inside of Blaine’s nostrils, coated his skin, and turned his chestnut hair gray. In the waning light of the remaining lanterns, Piran looked as ashen as a corpse. Ernest was wide-eyed with terror, and looked like he held onto control by a thread.
Bodies littered the floor. Some of those caught in the stampede were still alive, calling out for help. Others lay still, crushed beneath the press of their fellow miners. Cutting through the choking dust was the smell of blood and shit, the stench of death.
“You think it’s done?” Ernest dared to whisper after a few more moments passed without another collapse.
“Maybe,” Blaine murmured, keeping his voice down as if he feared that even so slight a noise might trigger another avalanche of stone.
Piran was cursing loudly, practically daring the gods to take them. Out in the corridor, Blaine heard the buzz of many voices. And above it all, Pig-face’s nasal drone cut through the confusion.
“Take the men who got the farthest toward the mine entrance and tie them to the posts in the yard,” Pig-face ordered. “I will personally see to their lashing when I get to it, and if they freeze before then, so be it.” Stones crunched beneath his boots as he headed back toward the room where Blaine and a few other triads huddled against the wall.
“Send two guards to get wooden posts. We’ll brace what’s left of the ceiling. As for the other prisoners, I want them back in here. They’ll need to dig out the bodies, pull out anyone who isn’t dead, and haul the rocks above ground for the rubies.”
“Rubies!” Piran exploded. “Men are dead. Men are crushed. And you still want the rubies?”
Pig-face landed a roundhouse punch that caught Piran square in the jaw, sending him reeling back against Blaine and Ernest.
“By the gods, Rowse, if we hadn’t lost so many men, I’d kill you for that,” Pig-face growled. “King Merrill expects his tribute. No one cares how many scum like you die in the process.”
Fear had become anger, and Piran would have lunged at Pig-face if Blaine and Ernest had not held him back.
Piran struggled against Blaine and Ernest, but they held him firmly. Ernest let out a yip of pain. “Damn, Rowse! You bit me!”
Blaine tightened his grip on Piran, and bent close to his ear. “Run your mouth and you’ll get us all killed. I am not in the mood to die today. So either you agree to shut up and not do something stupid like taking a swing at Pig-face, or I hold your nose while Ernest holds your mouth until you pass out.”
Piran gave Blaine a murderous glare, then nodded. He stopped fighting them, and they gradually relaxed their hold. Ernest removed his hand from Piran’s mouth and shook it, revealing a welt in the middle of his palm where Piran had bitten him.
The dust had settled enough for Blaine to get a good look around. Half of the mining chamber was gone. In its place was a huge mound of rock in pieces that ranged from the size of a fist to boulders that would take several men and a lever to prise out of place. A rough dome rose into darkness above the mound from where the stone had fallen. Now and again, more pebbles fell as if to warn them that there was more rock to fall. All the lumber in the world can’t shore that up safely, Blaine thought.
“You really don’t think that once he’s cleared it all out, he’ll expect us to mine in there again, do you?” Ernest whispered.
“Wouldn’t put it past him,” Blaine returned.
Piran, usually the cynic, shook his head. “It’s a toss-up. There’ve been cave-ins before, and after they took out what they could salvage and whatever survivors they could reach, they sealed up those the worst of those rooms.” He gave a bitter smile. “He’s right that no one gives a damn about ‘scum’ like us. On the other hand, Prokief only gets so many new prisoners every so often, and he needs all of us to keep this place running and make his quotas, or else Prokief and the guards don’t get their full pay. So they’ve got to have a little care with killing us off too quickly.”
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