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Ice bound kings convicts.., p.4

Ice Bound: King's Convicts II, page 4


Ice Bound: King's Convicts II

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  “And there’s no one who says a prayer or makes a sacrifice to the gods or anything?” Blaine asked, now that Velant had once again unmoored him from his notions of how the world worked.

  Piran sighed. “If we did that, Mick, we’d be singing songs for the dead nearly every damn day,” he said, not unkindly. “After a while, you learn to let it go.”

  “What about their families? Will Prokief send notice home?”

  Jaston, one of the other men in the barracks, gave a derisive snort. “You think Prokief would bother sending a notice to a prisoner’s family? By Torven! He’d be more likely to send a bill for lodging!” A few others laughed at his joke. Blaine recognized that kind of dark humor; he and his brother Carr had engaged in enough of it themselves to keep sane around their father.

  “Like as not, they’ve got no family—least none that wants anything to do with them,” Dawe said quietly. “Most of us don’t.” He gave Blaine a questioning look. “If you do, well, I’m sorry, mate.”

  “Just another thing at Velant that’s a lie,” Shorty said from where he lay on his bunk, staring at nothing. “Officially, we’re supposed to be able to get letters from back home and send them out on the return ships—assuming you and anyone you know can read or write.” He shook his head. “I don’t know many people who’ve heard from someone in Donderath. A few have tried to send letters back but there’s no way to tell if they arrived or if Prokief just tossed them into the sea.”

  It took all of Blaine’s composure not to show how deeply Shorty’s words hurt. He had only received a few letters from his Aunt Judith or his sister, Mari, during his time in exile. The letters were damaged and incomplete, but he treasured them regardless. Then, the letters stopped coming. He had no expectation to hear from Carensa, not since he set her free of their betrothal. But deep inside, he had hoped Judith or Mari would tell him how Carensa fared, whether or not she found a suitable husband, and reassure him that she had not been too badly tainted by his scandal.

  Then again, maybe it’s kinder for them if I ‘died’ when I got on the convict ship, Blaine thought. What good can come of hearing from me, when I can never come home? How much longer does it keep the pain alive, if I learn that they’ve gone on without me? No. It’s better like this. They did their duty with a few notes. Now, they’ve made a clean break, sharp as the grave. At least, for them.

  “There’s something else I heard,” Shorty said. “Got it direct from one of the blokes who was on the front line getting the rubble out of the cave-in. They couldn’t find all of the bodies.”

  “So? Some of them probably got crushed to jelly,” Piran said. “That was a lot of rock that came down.”

  “You don’t get it,” Shorty snapped. “The bodies weren’t smashed—they were missing. And from what this guy said, they could see bloody streaks where something had been dragged off.”

  “Dragged off, where?” Blaine asked.

  “Into the caves,” Bickle replied. Everyone turned to look at him. “There’s a rumor that there are caves below the mines. Natural caves. No one’s gone down there—at least, not and come back up again.”

  “Caves don’t drag off bodies,” Piran said, paying closer attention that Blaine expected.

  “No,” Bickle said. “But monsters do. And the miners who’ve been here the longest say there are monsters out under the ice.”

  “What kind of monsters?” Blaine recalled the strange noises he had heard in the mine, and the odd glimpses of shadows other miners whispered about seeing.

  “Monstrous monsters,” Bickle snapped, irritated. “I can’t draw you a picture. If you’re close enough to see one, you don’t live long enough to describe it. All I heard was that they have big teeth and sharp claws, they move really fast and they’re white as drowned men.”

  That last detail caught Blaine’s attention. “White as drowned men? That’s odd.”

  “Not really.” Until now, Verran had been quiet, sitting in a corner with his pennywhistle. He had not been in the mines when the cave-in happened, and since he and Dawe were assigned to the farm, they had not been on the clean-up crew. But he had known the dead and injured men, and the sudden, random deaths seemed to hit Verran hard.

  “I spent a bit of time down in the tunnels below Castle Reach,” he admitted. “Not where you meet the better sort, but then again, I’m not the ‘better sort.’ Most of those were dug out, but some were natural, or at least very old. And there were some really strange things that lived in them, especially down at the lower levels. Pale white bugs the size of my thumb—or bigger. Odd looking lizard-things that glowed in the dark.”

  “We checked out some caves when I was in the army,” Piran said. “I’ve seen the same kind of thing. Strange—but not monsters, and nothing that could drag a body away.”

  “Things up here have been left to themselves for a long, long time.” Shorty did not usually have a lot to say, but now, everyone turned to look at him.

  “Think about it. Donderath hasn’t had a colony—or a prison—on Edgeland for very long. A few decades?” Shorty said. “Don’t know that anyone else lived up here to go poking around in the dark places. And now here we come with all our miners and pickaxes, banging around. Most of the time, the things in the caves leave us alone. But once in a while, when the mine breaks through to a cave—”

  “The monsters come out,” Piran finished.

  Bickle nodded. “That would account for the stories that get passed down from one group of prisoners to the next. Sure, maybe the guards want to give us one more thing to be scared of. But the truth is, they don’t like the mines either.”

  “Did anyone see a break-through to the caves, when the ceiling came down?” Blaine asked.

  “There was a hole in the back wall of the room,” Shorty added, not moving from his bunk. “One that wasn’t there before the ceiling came down. I heard that the bodies that went missing were closest to that hole, and that’s where the blood trail led.”

  “Did the guards see anything?” Piran asked.

  Shorty turned away. “One of them got snatched. Quick as you could blink. They heard a strange noise, there was a pale white…something…and one of the men gets pulled in before the others could do a thing about it.”

  “Are you sure this isn’t a tall tale, mate?” Verran asked. “Because I’ve heard some strange things from drunken men in my day.”

  “Find me a drunken man in Velant,” Shorty challenged. “I can’t say for certain it’s true. But it’s what I heard, from someone I know was there. And usually, he tells the truth.”

  “Well, damn,” Piran said. “Monsters. As if we didn’t have enough to worry about.”

  That night, Blaine’s dreams were dark. His memories took over, and he was back at Glenreith once again, on the day when everything changed. Blaine headed for the manor’s front entrance at a dead run. Judith was half-way down the stairs. “Blaine, think about this. Blaine—”

  He flung open the door so hard that it crashed against the wall. Blaine ran down the manor’s sweeping stone steps. A full moon lit the sloping lawn well enough for Blaine to make out the figure of a man in the distance, strolling down the carriage lane. The smell of his father’s pipe smoke wafted back to him, as hated as the odor of camphor that always clung to Lord McFadden’s clothing.

  The older man turned at the sound of Blaine’s running footsteps. “You bastard! You bloody bastard!” Blaine shouted.

  Lord Ian McFadden’s eyes narrowed as he saw the sword in Blaine’s hand. Dropping his pipe, the man grabbed a rake that leaned against the stone fence edging the carriageway. He held its thick oak handle across his body like a staff. Lord McFadden might be well into his fifth decade, but in his youth he had been an officer in the king’s army, where he had earned King Merrill’s notice and his gratitude. “Go back inside boy. Don’t make me hurt you.”

  Blaine did not slow down or lower his sword. “Why? Why Mari? There’s no shortage of court whores. Why Mari?”

nbsp; Lord McFadden’s face reddened. “Because I can. Now drop that sword if you know what’s good for you.”

  Blaine’s blood thundered in his ears. In the distance, he could hear Judith screaming his name.

  “I guess this cur needs to be taught a lesson.” Lord McFadden swung at Blaine with enough force to have shattered his skull if Blaine had not ducked the heavy rake. McFadden gave a roar and swung again, but Blaine lurched forward, taking the blow on his shoulder to get inside McFadden’s guard. The broadsword sank hilt deep into the man’s chest, slicing through his waistcoat.

  Lord McFadden’s body shuddered, and he dropped the rake. He met Blaine’s gaze, his eyes, wide with surprise. “Didn’t think you had it in you,” he gasped.

  Behind him, Blaine could hear footsteps pounding on the cobblestones; he heard panicked shouts and Judith’s scream. Nothing mattered to him, nothing at all except for the ashen face of his father. Blood soaked Lord McFadden’s clothing and gobbets of it splashed Blaine’s hand and shirt. He gasped for breath, his mouth working like a hooked fish out of water. Blaine let him slide from the sword, watched numbly as his father fell backwards onto the carriageway in a spreading pool of blood.

  “Master Blaine, what have you done?” Selden, the grounds keeper was the first to reach the scene. He gazed in horror at Lord McFadden who lay twitching on the ground, breathing in labored, slow gasps, and finally went still.

  Blaine woke in a cold sweat, although the bunk room was warm by Velant standards. He ran a hand through his hair, and realized he was trembling.

  Father’s dead. He can’t hurt anyone else ever again. I’m not proud of what I did, but it had to be done, like putting down a rabid dog. I wish Merrill had just hanged me and gotten it over with, but maybe the gods want my penance. To Raka with all of them. I’m not going down easily, and if I can do anything about it, I’m going to earn my Ticket of Leave. That’s my revenge—living out the rest of my days as a colonist. I’ll make it that long. I swear it.

  Gradually, the shaking ceased. His heartbeat slowed to normal, and his breath grew regular once more. He’d been told more than once that only a fraction of the prisoners consigned to Velant survived their three years to earn their Ticket of Leave and become a colonist. And Blaine suspected that the odds were already against him, since Prokief knew he and Piran always seemed to be found wherever there was trouble.

  I got the best of father, and I’ll beat Prokief at his own game. Just watch me, Blaine vowed.

  He heard rustling and eased out of his bunk to see what was going on. Though it was the middle of the night, during the long dark the sun never set. The prisoners had hung scraps of material they had scrounged as makeshift curtains to keep out the light, but enough shone around the edges and through the weave of the material to make it possible to see.

  Dawe knelt next to the wall, and as Blaine moved closer, he saw that his friend was marking something with a bit of charcoal he had taken from the fireplace on the first level. The drawing was of three figures. In the center was a being with the features of a woman on one side of its body, and the features of a man on the other. Although Blaine was hardly observant in his religion, even he recognized Charrot, the High God.

  The female side held out a hand to another male figure that was slightly smaller. The male figure was horned like a goat, and beneath his feet were waves like the sea. That was Torven, one of Charrot’s consorts, god of the Sea of Souls, where souls at peace dwelled after death, and Raka, where the rest wandered in darkness.

  The male side of the central figure held out a hand to a smaller female figure. Around her feet were sheaves of grain, sheep, and fruit. This was Esthrane, Charrot’s second consort, goddess of the ground and all that grew on and in it, and mistress of the Unseen Realm, where the spirits wandered who were not fit for either Raka or the Sea of Souls.

  Dawe was so intent on his drawing that he startled when Blaine came up behind him. “Oh, it’s you,” he said, looking relieved.

  Blaine hunkered down beside him. “What’s that for?” He noticed that Dawe had placed a crust of bread in front of the drawing as an offering. A small gesture, but all the more potent given that the prisoners were constantly hungry.

  Dawe sighed and looked sheepish. “Nothing much. I’m hoping the guards won’t notice, since they almost never come up here. I just felt like...after what happened today in the mines...I needed to do something.” He let out a long breath. “It’s not like I’d known Albert and Tadd long, but I liked them. They didn’t cause problems, and they got along with everyone. They hadn’t done anything truly bad enough to deserve being here, let alone dying. But now they’re gone.”

  Blaine nodded. He personally had an uneasy truce with the gods of Donderath’s pantheon. Though Dawe’s drawing didn’t show it, the seers and temples of Donderath counted many lesser gods in addition to Charrot and his consorts. The constellations in the night sky were named for the more important gods and goddesses, like Vessa, bringer of fire. Every household claimed its own minor gods and guardian spirits, from the elaborate shrine in Quillarth Castle Blaine had glimpsed when he had visited with his father years ago, to the more modest altars in noble houses. He had heard that even the poorest homes had a place to make offerings, to beg the favor of the gods.

  Blaine’s mother had kept a shrine to Esthrane at Glenreith, and made offerings, beseeching the goddess to deliver them all from Ian McFadden’s rages. She died putting herself between Ian and Blaine during one of Ian’s furies, and on the night she was buried, Blaine dismantled the shrine and threw the pieces into the creek.

  “Maybe you shouldn’t have done that, Blaine,” Mari had said. Of course she had followed him, as she always followed Blaine and Carr.

  “Didn’t do mother any good,” Blaine replied, his voice choked. “Either the goddess wasn’t listening, or she’s got a mean sense of humor if that’s how she reckons deliverance.” He had watched the pieces of the shrine float away, blinking back tears.

  Mari took his arm and stood next to him. “It might bring bad luck on you.”

  Blaine swallowed hard before answering. “This is a bad luck house. I don’t see how it can get worse.”

  She looked up at him earnestly. “Don’t say that, Blaine. Please. You’re tempting the gods. Father’s off at court for a month. Maybe he’ll stay longer. Maybe the king will send him back out with the army and he’ll be gone a long time.”

  Blaine gave a harsh, bitter chuckle. “Maybe one of the court whores will slit his throat, or he’ll get a shiv in the back in some dark alley, or his horse will throw him off and break his bloody neck.”


  He turned to her. “Don’t you dream about that? Pray for it? How much better it would be if he were gone?” He turned back to the creek. “I do. I just wish it happened before this, before he killed her—”

  Mari’s fingers dug into his arm. “Please, Blaine. Don’t do anything foolish.”

  He looked in her eyes, saw her fear and worry, and managed a comforting smile. “Don’t worry,” he lied. “I won’t do anything stupid. Someone has to look out for you and Carr.”

  He had stopped believing in the gods that night. The gods had not heard Blaine, or they had declined to listen, and he did not think he had it in him to ever pray so hard again. Aunt Judith had come to manage the manor in Ian’s absence, and if she made offerings to the gods, she did so in her own rooms.

  “Not much for the gods?” Dawe asked, and Blaine realized he had gone quiet.

  Blaine shrugged uncomfortably. “What can I say? They got me where I am today.”

  Dawe slid him a sideways glance confirming that he read the sarcasm in Blaine’s tone. “I heard you talking to Piran, about no one saying a prayer for the dead.” He managed a sad smile. “I will. And maybe someday, someone will say one for me when the time comes.” He sighed. “For all I know, it’s just a comforting habit,” Dawe said, putting the finishing touch on his drawing for the evening and sitting ba
ck to look at his work. “But comfort’s hard to come by up here, so I’ll take what I can get.”

  Dawe wasn’t the only one to feel that way. Blaine knew that many of the convicts made amulets for luck or protection, scratching half-remembered runes into bits of wood or metal and carrying them in a pocket. Blaine sometimes envied them their faith, but he could not muster it for himself.

  “Put in a good word for Piran and me,” Blaine said. “We seem to need it more than we should.”

  Dawe chuckled. “This is a bad place for honest men,” he replied. “You two will make good colonists, if you don’t get yourselves killed first.”

  Blaine clapped Dawe on the shoulder and went back to his bunk, but despite how tired he was, sleep proved elusive.

  PART FOUR: Sounds in the Dark

  “Wake up!” Piran said, banging his fist against the side of Blaine’s bunk. “We’ve got new orders. No one’s in the mine today.”

  Blaine roused slowly, having barely fallen asleep after bad dreams and old memories made him restless most of the night. He rolled out of his bunk and pulled on his clothing and boots, giving Piran a bleary-eyed glare. “What? Why?”

  Piran gave a lopsided grin. “Word has it that Prokief wanted a word with ol’ Pig-face about how many prisoners got killed. Seems even the Butcher of Breseshwa thought it was overkill, especially after Pig-face left those three on the whipping posts to die.” He jabbed a thumb toward the window.

  Blaine moved the fabric aside to see, squinting at the light. Though it was technically spring, temperatures still got killing cold this time of year. Guards were just removing the bodies of the hapless miners from the whipping posts.

  “Is Prokief going to do something about him? Doesn’t benefit us any if not, because he’ll just be twice as mean and looking to take it out on our hides.” At least, that had been normal for Ian McFadden, who found a way to make his family, servants and livestock pay for any frustrations or slights he encountered.

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