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Ice bound kings convicts.., p.2

Ice Bound: King's Convicts II, page 2

 

Ice Bound: King's Convicts II
 


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  Grudgingly, the miners who had escaped the cave room returned, grumbling under their breath and sparing baleful glares for Pig-face and the guards. Even the guards looked uncertain about coming back, and only their fear of the overseer convinced them to return.

  They set up a line of shackled prisoners to hand rocks out from one person to another. Out in the tunnel, more prisoners hauled carts full of rocks topside and brought emptied carts back to be refilled. The air was foul with dust. Pig-face shouted to the guards, who brought a few more lanterns, but there was little they could do to illuminate the scene.

  The first bodies to be removed were those of the men trampled in the doorway. A few of the miners on the top of the heap twitched and moaned, still alive despite their injuries. Pig-face ordered guards to release the injured men from their shackles to better separate the living from the dead, and to carry out those who were still breathing to the barracks. His orders included no mention of calling for healers. The dead were hefted atop the carts that carried the rock to the surface, their broken bodies just so much refuse.

  Blaine and the others bent to the work. Blood seeped out from beneath the rock pile, mingling with the dust to create a sticky goo beneath their boots. The rough rocks cut Blaine’s hands, and he knew that his back and arms would protest tomorrow from the constant bending and turning. Some of the rocks took two or three men to lift. The cave-in made it a tight fit to get enough men into the room to pass the rocks out.

  “We need a pickaxe over here,” Piran yelled. “This one’s too big to move. Probably can’t get the bloody thing out of the door if we could move it.”

  The other men passed a pickaxe down the line, and took a few steps back to give Piran room to swing it. A few well-aimed blows, hitting with the full fury of Piran’s anger, and the big rock crumbled into more manageable pieces.

  “What was that?” one of the other miners asked. Blaine and the others froze, listening. In the distance, down one of the many dark tunnels, they heard scrabbling, like claws on rocks.

  “Guard dogs?” Ernest suggested.

  Piran shook his head. “Doubt it. Not sure what it is, but I don’t want to meet it, whatever it is.”

  Blaine had already learned the normal mine sounds—footsteps echoing, the clink of metal on rock, the scrape and squeak of heavily-loaded carts. He heard the noise again and shuddered, agreeing with Piran.

  Blaine’s stomach rumbled. Their meager breakfast was candlemarks ago, and lunch had been forgotten amid the chaos of the cave-in. His mouth was parched, but Pig-face looked too intent on clearing the room of potentially valuable rock to see to the needs of the survivors.

  Piran handed out a chunk of rock the size of a large melon, and beneath it, Blaine glimpsed a man. “We’ve got someone!” Piran shouted. Garrick was trapped near the edge of the pile, his face smeared with blood and dust.

  “You alive, mate?” Piran asked, as Blaine and the others crowded close to begin the delicate process of removing enough rock to free Garrick without causing more stones to fall on him from the large, unstable pile.

  Garrick moaned. “Leg’s bad. Ribs hurt. Get me out!”

  “Easy,” Blaine said. “We’re going to have to take some more chunks off from the top so they don’t slide down on you. Stay still.”

  Garrick’s fear was plain in his face. Carefully, Blaine and the others lifted rocks from the pile as if it were a huge puzzle, holding their breath when moving one stone triggered a slide of smaller rocks.

  “What’s taking so long? Pick up the pace!”

  “We’ve got live ones underneath,” one of the men shouted back. “Trying to get them out.”

  Pig-face swore. “Be quick about it. They won’t hold your dinner for you in the barracks, you know, if you’re late, and we will stay here until that pile is topside.”

  Piran looked as if he meant to make a remark, but Blaine brought a hand down hard on his shoulder with a warning shake of his head. Piran glowered, then turned back to his work.

  “Hold on,” Ernest said. “We’re almost down to you.”

  “Dunbar and Albert are under here, too,” Garrick managed as they worked to clear the rocks away from his body. One leg was bent at an unnatural angle, and Blaine could see bone poking through Garrick’s stained and torn pants.

  “One thing at a time,” Piran said through clenched teeth, pausing for a moment as the rocks shifted. When the slide stopped, they continued working, passing the stones hand to hand out of the room until more of Garrick’s form had been unburied.

  “I see another foot,” Blaine said.

  “Dunbar was next to me,” Garrick said as Piran and Ernest moved away the last rocks pinning him. “Albert was chained to him.”

  “We need to unlock his leg irons,” Piran shouted over his shoulder to the guards.

  Grudgingly, one of the guards came and unlocked the iron cuff on Garrick’s broken leg. Blaine, Piran, and Ernest lifted Garrick as gently as they could, but the movement still raised a cry of pain.

  “Easy, mate,” Piran said. “You’re on your way out now.”

  Garrick’s hand clutched at Blaine’s sleeve. His fingers were cut and bloodied. “Get them out,” he croaked. “Don’t leave them down here.”

  Blaine nodded. “We’ll do everything we can,” he replied. “See you back at the barracks.”

  They followed the chain to find Dunbar’s leg. Removing the rocks above him was a painfully slow process. “We need to take some off the other side and the top, or it’s all going to come crashing down,” Blaine called to those working on the other part of the pile. The fallen rock was heaped between the rock walls of the mine room, going from wall to wall so that only a portion could be accessed.

  Grimly, the other miners nodded and the process of passing stones out hand to hand brought the top of the heap lower and worked away at the side where Dunbar lay. After what felt like forever, Blaine and Piran moved the last of the rocks that covered Dunbar’s body.

  “He’s breathing, but I don’t think he’s conscious,” Blaine shouted. “And we’re going to need to unlock him.” The chain that led off from Dunbar’s leg ran beneath the biggest part of the rock pile. Garrick and Dunbar had been lucky enough to be at the pile’s edge, where the weight would be lightest. Even so, their injuries looked bad. Blaine held little hope for those caught under the heaviest portions of the cave-in.

  Dunbar’s moans were faint as they moved him. Enough blood stained his clothing that Blaine could not guess at his injuries, or whether all of the blood was really Dunbar’s. He watched the guards carry Dunbar out, wondering whether he would still be alive when they returned to their barracks, and feeling a pang of guilt that he and his triad had survived relatively unscathed while some of their friends had not.

  “This isn’t going to be good,” Piran muttered, as the next stone he removed was covered with blood.

  Half a candlemark later, they uncovered Albert’s blood-soaked body. His skull was crushed, and the weight of the rocks had broken his ribs and limbs. Blaine flinched as the soldiers tossed the limp form on the top of the rock cart. One more of us who’s finally free of this place. At least it’s over for him.

  PART TWO: Aftermath

  Blaine had lost all track of time when he, Piran, and Ernest finally stumbled to the surface where their leg irons were removed. The cold air was a welcome change from the stench and dust below. Blaine was bloodied to the forearms, with his own blood where he had been cut in dozens of places from the sharp rocks, and from the blood of the men whose bodies they had removed from the cave-in.

  “A dozen dead,” Piran muttered. “All because Pig-face wouldn’t get us out of there.”

  “He made sure he got his precious rocks, bloody or not,” Ernest added.

  The harsh, unending daylight of the white nights had taken the place of the unremitting darkness of the long dark. Blaine squinted as his eyes adjusted.

  “Looks like he made good on his threat about the whippings,” Bla
ine said with a nod toward the posts in the middle of the parade yard. The bodies of three men hung from ropes that bound their wrists. Stripped to the waist, their backs had been cut to bloody ribbons. Though it was officially spring in Edgeland, the temperatures were still cold enough that the whipped men were likely to die from exposure if Pig-face left them out in the elements for long.

  I guess Pig-face worked off his frustration about the cave-in on their hides, Blaine thought. He’s likely to get called to account by Prokief if his output is down. Maybe he’s afraid of ending up just like them if he displeases his commander. Gods! This place is worse than Raka.

  The sight of the whipped men drew a roar from the crowd of miners as they emerged from belowground. Some of the men still carried their pickaxes, and the adrenaline was high from their close brush with death. Most had seen friends or work partners killed, watched the efforts to remove the rock prized far more highly than the men whose bodies were crushed below.

  Shock, pain, blood, and fear combined with a deep, long-standing hatred of Pig-face and his guards. It reached the boiling point as the men came up from the horrors they had witnessed underground to see the bloodied bodies of men whose only crime was trying to escape a cave-in.

  “Move your asses!” one of the guards shouted as the men slowed to see what had become of the miners taken for punishment.

  “Move your own ass, you bloody bastard!” Kelsen, a miner from one of the other barracks, gave a battle cry and went running toward the guard, tackling him and taking him to the ground as fists and feet flew in a fight.

  Like a spark to tinder, the mob of miners surged forward, attacking the guards in teams of two or three, able to move and fight since their shackles had been removed. Those with pickaxes still in hand swung the tools like deadly weapons. The guards were armed with short knives and batons, since swords were useless in the close confines of the mine. That gave the miners an advantage, since they already outnumbered the mine guards.

  “Death to Pig-face!”

  “Kill the guards!”

  The crowd near the mouth of the mine became a melee. Blaine barely missed being punched by an irate miner aiming for the guard behind him. Piran ducked another blow, pivoted, and planted his boot on a guard’s rump, with a kick that sent the guard sprawling, where he was tackled by two miners who beat the man senseless.

  “We’ve got to get out of here!” Blaine said, looking for a way to escape the mob.

  “The party’s just getting started!” Piran’s grin was malicious, and he eyed the action, weighing the chance to wade in for some well-deserved retribution.

  “You can’t win!” Blaine said, as the mob surged around them. “We outnumber the mine guards, but the rest will come running. Come on!”

  Ernest needed no urging. Blaine grabbed Piran by the collar and dragged him off to the side. Piran fought him, and Blaine threw Piran up against the wall of one of the barns.

  “Get your hands off me!” Piran snapped.

  Blaine backed off a step, hands raised. “Fine. Go get yourself killed. Once Prokief sends in more guards, the rioters will get the Hole—or worse. You can’t win this fight.”

  Piran was breathing hard, his blood already high for the fight. But before his exile, he had been a military man, and whatever the reason for the court-martial that sent him to Velant, Blaine suspected that Piran had been an officer, not just a conscript. Blaine could see Piran struggling for control as the riot raged yards away in the parade grounds. Piran’s hands unclenched from fists, and his jaw relaxed, although he still gave Blaine a baleful glare.

  Already, Blaine could hear the piercing alarm whistles and the ringing of the bell that called out soldiers for emergencies like fires—or uprisings.

  “If they catch us here, it won’t matter whether we were fighting or not,” Ernest said with a nervous glance over his shoulder.

  With a growl, Piran pushed away from the barn. For a second, Blaine thought that Piran meant to join up with the rioters. But then he turned away, and motioned for them to follow him.

  “This way,” he said. “It’ll keep us out of the guards’ sight, and we can move in the barn shadows most of the way back to our barracks.”

  Several times along the way, they flattened themselves against the outbuildings, scarcely daring to breathe as soldiers ran to put down the rebellion from wherever they had been stationed. Piran’s knowledge of the camp proved valuable, as he led them in and out of barns and sheds to keep from being seen, crossing the camp with practiced stealth, enough to tell Blaine this was not the first time Piran had taken such a route.

  Sweat streaked down through the gray dust on their faces and arms, and whether or not they were injured, their clothing was covered with blood. Every muscle in Blaine’s body ached, his head pounded, and his eyes stung from fatigue and the irritation of the rock grit that covered his body. Yet after the horrific injuries he had seen, he could not complain. By Velant standards, they had gotten off lucky.

  They washed up quickly in the ice cold water of a half-frozen horse trough, trying to get the worst of the filth off of their bodies before going in for dinner. The cold helped focus Blaine’s thoughts and wake him up, and it was a welcome relief to get the grit out of his eyes and nose. It was a sorry substitute for what Blaine really wanted, but the luxury of a hot bath was not to be had in Velant, except perhaps by its commander. Blaine had no doubt that Prokief enjoyed many of the luxuries Blaine had once taken for granted, and would never see again.

  It sounded like a battle in the parade ground. Men shouted and cursed, bellowing battle cries and screaming in pain. The clang of the alarm bell echoed in the cold air, loud enough to reach all corners of the camp. Soldiers commanded the miners to stand down, and the miners replied with jeers and obscenities.

  “Over here!” Piran hissed, motioning for them to follow. He led them to a small storage shed against the wall of their barracks in the back, where the food was prepared. A bit of metal flickered and twitched in Piran’s hand as he picked the lock on the door, and then they were inside, and Piran manipulated the lock with practiced skill to look as if it had not been jimmied.

  Light filtered between the boards of the shed walls, just enough to maneuver. Piran went around to the back, the actual barracks wall, and moved an empty barrel, then knelt and gentled a section of board out of position.

  “Get in!” he whispered. “And be quiet.”

  Blaine went first, on his hands and knees, crawling through the darkness to find himself against another wall. Remembering how Piran had opened the passage, Blaine jiggled the section of boards in front of him and found them loose. A finger-hold kept the boards from dropping out onto the floor and making noise. Blaine emerged, wary for a trap, and saw that they were in the barracks pantry. Ernest and Piran followed, and Piran carefully replaced the boards.

  “Now what?” Blaine whispered.

  Piran squeezed past him and waited behind the pantry door, ear pressed against the wood. He eased the door open, then signaled for the others to follow as he tip-toed out of the pantry. It was past dinnertime, and the preparation area should have been bustling with activity, but Blaine guessed that everyone had gone to the windows to watch the riot in the parade ground.

  Piran flashed them a triumphant smile and they slipped out of the back room and mingled with the prisoners as if they had never been gone.

  All of the prisoners crowded around the windows, and Blaine guessed more were at the windows upstairs as well, straining for a view of what was going on. Dawe and Verran startled when Blaine came up behind him, but a shake of his head silenced their questions as to how the three men had suddenly appeared.

  “Time to eat!” one of the kitchen prisoners shouted above the murmur of voices. “You know how that fight’s going on end.”

  Unfortunately, they did, Blaine thought. While he sympathized completely with the miners’ anger, they were not numerous enough nor well-armed enough to win against Prokief’s soldiers. He only h
oped that reprisals did not affect all of them.

  Sooner or later, Prokief will overplay his hand, Blaine thought. Maybe I won’t live to see it. But someone will find a way to take him and his guards down.

  The cauldron of stew tasted as if it had sat waiting for a few extra candlemarks on the fire, but Blaine and the others were too hungry to complain as they lined up for their portions of stew, hard bread, and fet.

  “You made it out.” Dawe looked both worried and relieved as he took a seat near Piran and the others.

  Blaine nodded. “Yeah. But some of us didn’t.”

  “Not our day to die, I guess,” Ernest said, putting into words what they were all likely thinking.

  “We know,” Verran said. “Prokief pulled prisoners from other duties to help haul out the rock and move the bodies.”

  “Where did they take Garrick and Dunbar?” Piran asked.

  “Infirmary,” Dawe replied, his voice tight. “The mage-doctors will look them over, decide whether to heal them or just kill them.”

  “What?” Ernest asked, eyes growing wide.

  Piran nodded. “That’s how it works here, mate. A bit like deciding whether to try to cure a horse or put it down. Actually, I imagine they’d try harder for the horse. Fewer of them to be had up here. There’s still plenty of us.”

  Dawe and Verran were assigned to the same barracks as Blaine and the others, but they had been assigned to farm work instead of the mines. Dawe had blacksmithing skills, and Verran was too slightly built to be much use with the heavy work of mining.

  “Albert and Tadd are dead,” Piran reported, his voice flat. “So’s Horace, and ten blokes who weren’t from our barracks. Squashed like a bug under all those damn rocks, and all Pig-face could think about were the rubies.” There was no attempt to hide the bitterness in his tone.

  “I heard that they didn’t get many gems from the rock anyhow,” Verran reported. He was a musician by trade, but petty theft had earned him exile in Velant. Though Verran, like Blaine, was a newcomer to the prison, somehow he always managed to know more about what was going on than might be expected.

 
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