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Ice bound kings convicts.., p.3

Ice Bound: King's Convicts II, page 3

 

Ice Bound: King's Convicts II
 


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  “I heard the guards talking,” Verran continued. “Said that the room had been pretty well mined out. The rock up above that fell wasn’t the right sort to have rubies in it, or something like that.”

  Piran growled curses under his breath, and his fist clenched. “Pig-face had to know,” he said. “It’s his business to know, and he’s been here long enough to tell one kind of rock from another. That means those men are dead or crippled for nothing—not even Prokief’s godsforsaken rubies.”

  Ernest shrugged. “Agreed. But there’s nothing to do about it. You’ve said it yourself; that’s how it is here.”

  “I’m not ready to leave it like that,” Piran muttered.

  Blaine gave him a look. “Think, Piran. We’ve already been flogged once because we got on the wrong side of the guards. I don’t relish another turn at it. Be glad we haven’t ended up in the Holes.” The Holes were shafts cut down through the ice and rock which Commander Prokief used as oubliettes.

  Angry as Blaine was about what had happened in the mine, he had no desire for another flogging. From what they had glimpsed of Prokief’s response to the miners’ riot, there would be swift, brutal repercussions—perhaps for all prisoners, whether or not they were part of the uprising.

  “Let me think on it,” Piran said. “I’ll come up with something.”

  After they had eaten, they trudged up to the bunk room. Blaine saw that the least injured of the miners had been brought back to the barracks. Prisoners he did not recognize were moving from bunk to bunk, binding up wounds, preparing poultices, and administering doses of a liquid with a smell that made Blaine wrinkle his nose.

  “Who are they?” he asked Piran.

  “Hedge witches,” Piran replied with a shrug. “Healers. It’s the best the likes of us get.”

  “I didn’t think Prokief allowed magic,” Blaine replied.

  Dawe gave Blaine a sidelong look. “He doesn’t. What’s that have to do with it?”

  “The warden-mages can’t sense the power?” Blaine asked.

  “What do you think they’re doing?” Piran replied with a nod toward two men, one on either side of the room, who stood by, chanting quietly. “Best I understand it, they mumble like that and it puts up some kind of screen the warden-mages can’t easily see through, at least, if they’re not looking hard.”

  “We’re not talking about strong magic,” Dawe added. “Most of these folks were village healers who got sent here because they couldn’t save everyone, and they were unlucky enough to have a powerful patient die. Family wanted someone to punish, so here they are.”

  “On the other hand, several of them got sent here for poisoning an enemy or a rival, so even I try not to get on their bad side,” Piran said.

  The healers were nearly done making their way among the bunks. They turned their attention next to the returning miners, spreading salve on the cuts on their hands and arms, or closing scalp wounds from falling rocks. Blaine accepted their help gratefully. He had seen men die from wounds gone sour, and even in Velant, it was a bad way to go.

  “What do you think will happen to the rioters?” Verran asked.

  Piran snorted. “Nothing good. Doesn’t matter whether they really rioted or just didn’t want to get crushed to death. They defied orders—and around here, that’s as good as a death sentence.”

  PART THREE: Repercussions

  Late that evening, the guards came hammering on the door to the dormitory. “Out! Out! Out!” they shouted. They were armed with whips, and now they wore broadswords. Some carried battle axes and morning stars. It was all the evidence Blaine needed that Prokief considered himself to be at war.

  Clutching their cloaks and hopping as they tried to put on boots, the prisoners roused from their beds and filed out for inspection. Even the wounded hobbled out, fearful of repercussions if they did not show up to be counted.

  The wind was cold, and Blaine blinked against the glaring perpetual sunlight of the white nights. Three guards instead of the usual solo soldier came down their ranks to make a count, and repeated the action twice more, either to assure themselves that no one was missing, or to make it clear to the prisoners that they were being scrutinized.

  Commander Prokief and Warden-Mage Ejnar stood in the center of the parade ground, gazing expressionlessly over the ranks of assembled prisoners. In front of them knelt twenty five miners, under the watchful gaze of a dozen guards armed as if they were about to ride into battle. The men wore iron bands around their necks, to which ran the chain from the manacles on their wrists. Equally heavy chains ran between their leg irons. Most of the miners were bloody and badly injured; clearly Prokief had given the guards free reign to take out their frustrations.

  Once the guards were finished taking account of the prisoners, all eyes turned to Prokief.

  “Last night, these prisoners rebelled against the king’s authority,” Prokief boomed. “They caused a riot that damaged the king’s property, and dared to raise their hands—and weapons—against the king’s duly appointed officers.”

  Piran, Ernest, and Blaine exchanged surreptitious glances. A chill ran down Blaine’s back as he realized just how close they had come to being among the doomed men.

  “Under normal circumstances, disobedience to the law of the king is punishable by death,” Prokief continued. “But as you know, here in Velant, we do not have ‘normal’ circumstances. We are constrained by our distance from the kingdom to make good on our duty to the king with fewer workers than the task requires.”

  Blaine was skeptical that despite Prokief’s words, any mercy would be forthcoming. The commander’s next words proved him right. “Because of that, we cannot execute all of the miscreants as their treason warrants. But because of the danger they posed to the survival of this prison—and this colony—I will not permit their deeds to go unpunished.”

  Prokief looked as if he barely hid a self-satisfied smile. “Therefore,” he announced, “five of these men will be executed, as a reminder to all of you what happens to those who dare to challenge King Merrill’s authority.”

  The guards roughly jerked five of the shackled prisoners to their feet. Terror was clear in their wide eyes.

  “Three of these men will hang,” Prokief continued. The guards led the three doomed men toward the gallows that was an ever-present reminder of Prokief’s power of life and death over all those on Edgeland. Nooses hung from the scaffolding, swaying slowly in the wind. A drummer began a slow military cadence as the guards escorted the condemned men to the bed of a wagon beneath the nooses.

  At least all those iron chains will make quick work of it, Blaine thought. He had gone out of his way to avoid the public executions which some considered to be entertainment back in Donderath. Those he had witnessed had not always been a quick death. If the hangman did not tie the noose just right, or the drop was not calculated correctly, the hanged men could strangle slowly, a painful, lingering death.

  Then he noticed that the guards were removing the three men’s chains and binding their wrists with rope. “There will be no hoods,” Prokief’s voice carried in the cold air. “It behooves you to look on their miserable end, and contemplate that your lives hang by a fragile thread of your obedience to orders.” He paused. “Warden-Ejnar will make certain that their end is prolonged, to give them—and all of you—full time to contemplate what happens to those who disobey.”

  The drummer continued his measured cadence, the same that Blaine recalled from hangings back in Castle Reach. He steeled himself as the nooses were placed around the men’s necks. The drumbeats reached a crescendo as the hangman signaled the wagon driver, who snapped the reins, causing the horse to bolt and jerking the platform from beneath the condemned men’s feet.

  The prisoners fell, dangling a few feet above the ground. Denied a quick death, their bodies bucked in a macabre, desperate dance as their faces blackened and their eyes bulged. Prokief watched as discomfort, shock, and horror rippled through the audience of prisoners, con
tinuing the spectacle for at least a half a candlemark until he was assured that his point had been made. Ejnar made a motion with his hand, and the tortured prisoners finally went still.

  Blaine fought down his rising gorge. A few of the prisoners at attention were not so lucky, turning to the side and retching. Two men fainted. Blaine kept his eyes on Prokief, whose satisfied smile fueled a cold, lethal hatred deep in Blaine’s gut.

  “In case that warning is easily forgotten,” Prokief continued, knowing well that it was likely to remain in the survivors’ nightmares for the rest of their lives, “two of the insurrectionists will go into the gibbets. They will remain there until they are dead from hunger and the elements, and once they are corpses, the crows will feed on their remains.” He paused. “But once again, Warden-Mage Ejnar will prolong their lives as a lesson to all of you, so that you will look on their misery and be reminded of the virtues of obedience.”

  No one dared say a word, but Blaine could read defiance and hatred in the stiff stances of his fellow prisoners, the clenched jaws and white-knuckled fists. Fury burned so bright in Piran’s eyes that Blaine feared his friend would forget himself, but whatever vengeance Piran planned, military discipline enabled him to keep control.

  “Now what of these twenty rebels?” Prokief asked. “They have put all of you at risk. It would be within my charge as the representative of the king to levy punishment on all of you for the deeds of these few.” He paused, letting that sink in. “But I can be merciful,” he said after a moment. “And I am a good steward of the king’s resources, mindful of our duty to send to him the quota of goods our charter requires. Therefore, no reprisals will be taken against prisoners who did not join the uprising.”

  Prokief’s hand swept through the air to indicate the twenty kneeling men. “These men, however, must bear the consequences of their actions, which constitutes treason against the king by defying the appointed agents of the king’s authority.” Blaine noticed that Prokief took every opportunity to link himself and King Merrill, when in reality the king considered Prokief a dangerous embarrassment and was well rid of him. Then again, I’m probably the only one close enough to court to realize that, Blaine thought.

  “I sentence these men to the deepest levels of the mines,” Prokief boomed. “They will labor there for the rest of their lives without ever returning to the surface. They will not see daylight or fresh air again, and they will toil without stopping until death alone releases them from their sentence. And Warden-Mage Ejnar will prolong their lives to give them time to contemplate their bad judgment, and make up for the lost time their willful destruction of property has caused.”

  Once again, the drummer struck up a death march cadence. Prison guards marched the doomed miners into the mouth of the mine, until they disappeared from sight.

  When Blaine and the other prisoners turned back, the two remaining miners had been placed in the gibbets, man-sized iron cages roughly the shape of a person, which would allow them almost no freedom of movement. The gibbets were raised by chains until they swung twenty feet off the ground, far too high for their occupants to have hope of escape, but not so far that the men on the ground could not make out the utter terror in the prisoners’ expressions.

  “Dismissed.”

  Back in the barracks, the men gathered in small groups of two or three. Some sat or lay on their bunks, staring at nothing. Although Blaine was one of the newcomers, he still felt the loss of those who had died in the cave-in or been sentenced to death.

  “Kurt’s tied out there on that damn post,” Ernest said, his expression bleak. “He was the first person I met when I got onboard the Cutlass. He didn’t deserve to die like that, just for trying not to get killed by the rocks.”

  “None of them deserved to die,” Verran said, his voice bitter. “Just like half the people in Velant don’t deserve to be here for what little they did. But it’s the way things are.” Verran walked away to the farthest corner of the room, dropped down to sit on the floor and played his pennywhistle softly. Blaine had seen him do that often on the ship from Donderath, and figured that it helped him deal with the situation.

  “They’re gone! I saw them die!” Everyone’s attention turned to Jame. He was a short man, not much taller than Piran but not so strongly built, and before he had been a convict, he had been a groomsman. Like the rest of them, dust grayed his hair and clung to his clothing, but Jame’s eyes were wide and wild, and his skin was pallid.

  “We were chained together. And Carl had just said something to me. I moved to get a better angle to hit my rock and then…there was a jerk on the chain…and they were gone.”

  Dawe eased toward Jame. “We know,” he said gently. “I’m sorry—”

  Jame backed away, unreasoning terror in his eyes. “No. You don’t know. You weren’t there. They were crushed under that rock. I heard…bones snap. Hort screamed and he kept on screaming, and I tried to dig him out but the guards made me move. They dragged me by my chain. I just wanted to dig them out.” He held out his bloodied hands, skin badly cut by the sharp rocks.

  Dawe advanced another step while the rest of the men either gave ground or looked up to see what was going on. “Easy,” he said, as if gentling a spooked horse. “Just calm down—”

  “I can’t calm down!” Jame snapped. “Their ghosts are going to be trapped down there forever. If I hadn’t moved, I’d have gone down with them, and I wouldn’t have to remember the blood. So much blood.”

  Blaine had heard tell of soldiers who returned from battle mad with grief for their fallen comrades and guilt that they had survived when others did not. He had no idea what was going on in Jame’s mind, but it was clear from the man’s wild eyes that he had been completely overwhelmed by what he witnessed.

  “It’s over,” Dawe said quietly. “It’s done.”

  “It’s not over! I have to…make it right.” From somewhere, a small knife appeared in Jame’s hand. Dawe saw it, and cautioned Blaine and Piran to stay where they were when they moved to intervene.

  “How can you make it right?” Dawe coaxed. “How can you undo what’s done?”

  “You just want me to forget. But I can’t forget. I can’t ever forget,” Jame howled. “I see them when I close my eyes, bleeding and dying. Oh gods above, I see them. How can I sleep?”

  Dawe had made eye contact with Shorty and Whinny, who were closest to where Jame stood. The two thieves moved fast. One grabbed Jame from behind, holding him as he thrashed and bucked. The other wrestled the knife away and swung a punch that caught Jame in the jaw and dropped him in his place.

  “Put him in his bunk,” Dawe said tiredly. “Maybe he’ll have calmed down come morning.” He rubbed his temples, as if the whole situation had given him a headache.

  “Nice wrangling,” Jakk said. Blaine recalled that Jakk had been a stablehand before he was sent to Velant, so he had probably calmed his share of panicked horses.

  “Not exactly successful, since we had to knock him out,” Dawe replied. “But at least he didn’t hurt himself—or anyone else.”

  “Was he close with Carl and Hort before, back home?” Ernest asked. Blaine struggled to remember who had congregated together on the ship over. Certainly since their arrival, Jame, Carl, and Hort had been a tight group.

  “No idea,” Dawe said, massaging the back of his neck. “Maybe it’s just that he was standing right there when it happened, and he barely missed dying.” He went back to his bunk and swung his long legs in, lying down and closing his eyes, as if the matter was settled.

  Blaine turned back to Piran, who had known more of the doomed men longer. Piran was handling the loss better, but Blaine could see the struggle in his eyes. Of course he’s handling it better. He was a soldier. If he’s seen battle at all, he’s seen death. It doesn’t make death any easier, but it builds up scars after a while.

  “One-Eye and Peters were in the group to go Below,” Piran said, pacing between the bunks. “They were on the ship with me from Donderat
h. They never made any trouble. Now, they’d have been better off if they’d been crushed, like the others.”

  Blaine couldn’t argue Piran’s logic. Since he questioned the king’s ‘mercy’ in granting them exile to this miserable place, he was already unsure whether staying alive—no matter what the situation—was actually preferable to death. He doubted that, especially in the case of the poor bastards sentenced to dying by slow torture in the gibbets. At least the corpses that still hung from the gallows were well and truly dead, though the warden-mages had made their end as painful as possible.

  “That’s it?” Blaine asked. “You’re dead and it’s over?”

  Piran looked at him quizzically. “You were expecting ghosts? Yeah, I suspect we’ve got more than a few of those.”

  Blaine shook his head. “No. I mean, what about a decent burial?”

  Piran gave a mirthless chuckle. “The blokes out there won’t be anything except bones by the time the foxes and crows are done with them,” he said. “There’s not much sentiment in Velant—in case you hadn’t noticed. Most of the time, the dead are hauled up to that big platform you might have seen beyond the wall. Keeps the wolves away, lets the vultures and crows have their fill. Then the bones get dumped in a break in the ice somewhere, I imagine.”

  He shrugged. “Once in a while—especially if what killed someone might be catching—they’ll burn the bodies. Ground’s too hard most of the year to dig a proper grave the animals couldn’t get into. Don’t know what the colonists do. Probably a mixture of all those things.”

  Blaine thought he had reconciled himself to the idea that his body would never return home to Donderath, and his family would not know what became of him. But learning the harsh truth that his bones might not even find a resting place in the ground started up a familiar ache deep inside.

 
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