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Ice bound kings convicts.., p.6

Ice Bound: King's Convicts II, page 6

 

Ice Bound: King's Convicts II
 


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  Pig-face might not have heard Piran’s actual comment, but he must have suspected the intent. The overseer strode into the room and backhanded Piran hard enough that Piran had to take a step to avoid being thrown off balance.

  “Don’t try my patience, Rowse,” Pig-face growled. “There’ll be a new boatful of convicts soon. Plenty of muscle for the mines. Don’t think you can’t be replaced.”

  Pig-face shouldered his way back to the tunnel. Rage burned in Piran’s eyes as his gaze followed the overseer, but for once, Piran kept his tongue.

  “Let’s get the torches in place. Sooner we can see, the sooner we’re done,” Blaine said.

  Before long, the torches blazed, illuminating the room. “What a mess,” Bickle sighed, taking in the full extent of the damage now that they could see.

  Rock dust was thick over everything. A huge pile of rocks lay where the roof had collapsed. Some were stained dark with dried blood. The task was monumental. It would take five men days to clear the rubble—assuming the dust didn’t ignite and cause a second explosion.

  Blaine and the others bent to their task. Pig-face hovered the doorway. “McFadden! Pick up the pace,” Pig-face ordered. “All of you—no lunch or water until you clear to the first pillar.” He leaned against the wall of the tunnel with a satisfied smirk and took a long, noisy drink of water from his canteen, taunting the thirsty men as he let the precious water drip from his chin.

  The torn leather gloves Blaine wore came from Tadd’s meager possessions, but they were of no use to a dead man. Even with the gloves, the rough rocks tore his skin. Time and again they were obliged to take up pickaxes to break huge rocks into rubble small enough to lug over to the wheeled cart.

  After a candlemark, two guards came in with large buckets of water. Blaine and the others, thirsty and tired, looked up expectantly. But instead of providing them with drinks, the guards used their dippers to soak the rough rock in the central pile, the walls and floor. In the process, a good bit of the water soaked the miners, though none of it was given for drink.

  “Keeping the dust down, like you wanted,” Pig-face announced.

  Piran’s glare was murderous, and even Bickle made a low growl in anger. Pig-face’s expression made it clear that he relished the chance to exact his petty revenge.

  For the moment, the soaking felt good, washing away some of the sweat and grime. But soon enough, the mine’s chill would make damp clothing miserable, despite their hard labor. Blaine clenched his jaw so hard his teeth ached, but he kept on working. Finish up. Get out. That’s what matters, he told himself.

  The miners worked in shifts, trading off between breaking up the big rocks, hauling chunks to the cart, and pushing the heavy cart out of the mine. Pig-face made a show of lounging as they worked. He could have assigned watching them to a guard, but it was clear the overseer was enjoying the situation.

  Torch light flickered across the walls, making the shadows dance. More than once, Blaine cast a nervous glance over his shoulder as movement caught his eye. He kept on working, focusing his attention on the pillar that was their milestone. Blaine’s stomach rumbled and his throat was parched, but he consoled himself with the thought that they were closing in on their objective.

  Finally, they cleared the last of the rocks from the first pillar. Much more of the room remained, but the tired, thirsty miners brought the last arm-load of rocks to the cart and dropped them with a clang and a thud into its dented depths.

  “All right,” Piran said. “We’ve reached the first pillar. How about some food and water?”

  If it were up to Pig-face, Blaine wouldn’t have been surprised for the overseer to force them to work until they dropped from hunger or dehydration. But Prokief monitored the mines like a business, and if too many miners were injured, the king’s quotas went un-met. Prokief’s need to keep King Merrill happy was the miners’ only security.

  Pig-face clapped his hands, and two guards brought buckets of water and a large basket of hard bread and dried meat. “Eat fast,” he snapped at the prisoners. “There’s more work to do.”

  Blaine gulped down the water as a guard ladled it into his mouth, already feeling woozy from dehydration. The food helped, though both food and water were too little, after too long a wait. Everyone fell silent, eating as quickly as they could.

  In the quiet, Blaine heard a strange scrabbling noise, and an unnatural squealing that sent a chill down his spine.

  “What’s that?” Piran demanded. “That noise—what’s making it?”

  “Not your concern,” Pig-face retorted, though it looked to Blaine as if the overseer was frightened. The guards in the tunnel cast wary glances toward the darkness and readied their weapons.

  “There’s something down there—or your men wouldn’t have drawn their swords,” Piran pressed.

  Pig-face’s fear became rage. He came at Piran and Blaine wild-eyed, just barely hanging onto control. “Get back to work,” he growled, “or by all the gods, I will send you down that tunnel without a torch and you can find out for yourself what’s down there—and whether it’s hungry.”

  The rest of the miners returned to their work the next day. The mood was darker than usual. Three bodies still swung from the gallows, and two more languished in the gibbets. Rumors spread about the men who had been sent to the depths of the ruby mines without hope of ever seeing the sun again.

  “I heard it goes so deep, it gets hot again,” one of the men said to the miners in earshot. “You know, where all that liquid rock is that spews out of the volcano now and again.” Estendall, a large volcano, sat several miles off the coast of Edgeland. It had not erupted for quite some time, but stories abounded, passed down from one group of convicts and colonists to the next.

  “They say there are creatures in the deep places that eat men,” another miner ventured. “Horrible things that can’t stand to be in daylight or breathe the air up above.”

  “If there are monsters in the deep, why don’t they ever come up and snatch the miners up above?” one of his fellows challenged. “What do they eat?”

  “How do you know they don’t snatch a man or two, now and again?” his companion argued. “Men go missing down here. The guards blame it on bad air or falling into a hole. Who’s to say they’re not lying?”

  “Has anyone ever seen these monsters?” Piran leaned on his axe for a moment. “Well?”

  “If you got close enough to see them, they’d see you and eat you!” The miner’s two companions nodded in agreement. Blaine remembered what Carl had told them, and suppressed a shiver.

  “You heard something about the monsters on the lowest levels?’ Blaine asked.

  “Heard about monsters…not sure where,” one of the men replied. “Just that they go real deep, and only come up now and again. Maybe all the blood from that cave-in made them hungry.”

  His friends guffawed, and Piran’s jaw clenched. Blaine was sure Piran was thinking of their bunkmates who had been killed or injured. “Maybe the monsters are a story they tell to keep us in line,” Piran replied, taking up his pickaxe again. “We’ve seen enough monsters above ground.” But something flashed in Piran’s gaze, for a moment, just long enough for Blaine to know that Piran had an idea. Most likely, a dangerous idea.

  Despite Piran’s bravado, Blaine could tell that the last few days wore heavy on his friend. Piran’s gaze followed Pig-face and the guards, and Blaine knew him well enough to see the desire for revenge still burned hot.

  Blaine and his friends were back in the room where the cave-in had occurred. He suspected Pig-face enjoyed sending the same teams into the area who had already survived the collapse, knowing that fear of a second disaster would increase their discomfort. He and the others worked in groups of nine, three triads of shackled men to a room, in areas that were much smaller than the cavernous area that had collapsed.

  “We’re behind on quota,” Pig-face shouted, striding through the room. His whip was coiled on his belt, but he carried a flail, an
d brought it down hard on the neck and shoulders of men he considered to be moving too slowly.

  “Fewer miners means more for each of you to mine,” Pig-face taunted, taking Prokief’s support as confirmation that he was supreme in his authority down below. “Teach you to be more careful. It was shoddy work that brought down the ceiling, and I won’t have any more of that! We lost access to valuable ruby rock because of carelessness. And if you don’t know the punishment for carelessness, have a look at the gallows and the gibbet on your way topside.”

  Piran’s hands clenched around his pickaxe white-knuckled. Blaine felt his teeth grind in frustration. Those men were executed for a show of power and dominance, Blaine thought. The only one who was careless was Pig-face. Our lives are worth less than a horse or a mule to him, because the animals still have worth back in Donderath—we’re just refuse they threw away.

  “The next time you’re tempted to be careless, think of your friends in the deep,” Pig-face gloated. “They’ll never see daylight again. The work’s even harder down there, because fewer miners have dug it out—yet. That might change,” he added with a smirk, a threat no one could mistake.

  “On the other hand, they don’t have to worry about dying, like you do,” he added. “Oh, they could be crushed or dismembered, that’s true. But not much else will kill them. The warden-mages saw to that.” His grin was ugly. “Not ’till I’m done with them. If they can crawl, they’ll mine.”

  Piran made a low growling noise. Blaine brought a hand down on Piran’s shoulder, warning him, and Piran shook free with a look of irritation. Pig-face is baiting us. He’d probably love to have more miners to torture and use up below—especially Piran and me. But that’s not in my plans, Blaine thought.

  “I want my Ticket of Leave,” Blaine muttered, just low enough for Piran to hear.

  Piran gave him a murderous look, and Blaine stared him down. With a curse, Piran looked away and went back to his digging with renewed zeal, no doubt picturing himself putting his axe into Pig-face’s head with every swing.

  Blaine made sure Pig-face had no reason to use his flail on any of their triad. He and the others worked at a steady pace, enough to produce a pile of rock that compared favorably to the output of any other group, but not so quickly or productively as to raise the expectations for them all. It was a tactic Blaine’s father, Ian McFadden, had frequently accused the farm hands on their land of employing, usually in terms just as contemptuous as those Pig-face used.

  Those were free men, not prisoners, not even bound to the land, Blaine thought with a sigh. But they were smart. Father would have used them up and burned them out, just like Pig-face, if they had let him control the pace. This is good enough to get us by. Once we’ve got our Tickets and our homestead, we’ll see how hard we can really work—for ourselves, not some damn overseer.

  Blaine was well aware that the odds were against his surviving Velant and earning the chance to become a colonist. Those odds were particularly bad considering his friendship—and shackle-partnership—with Piran Rowse, who seemed intent on causing trouble.

  Piran’s quick with his fists, but almost always with good reason. I’ve never seen him fight just to trounce someone weaker. Usually, he takes on blowhards his size or bigger. I suspect it’s something left of his military days. He hates a bully even more than I do.

  Blaine tried to lose himself in the mindless rhythm of the rise and fall of his pickaxe. But when that was impossible, he pictured just how he would set up his homestead, once he earned his Ticket of Leave. In the months since he had arrived in Velant, since he had first learned of the possibility of ‘graduating’ from the prison to become a colonist, Blaine had tried to learn as much as he could about the process. Many of the convicts dismissed the possibility out of hand, as a cruel dream dangled by Prokief and the overseers to keep prisoners from committing suicide in a mass riot that took the guards to the grave with them.

  Yet Skalgerston Bay and its colonists were real, and since no one came to live on Edgeland except as convicts, that meant some of those prisoners did survive Prokief’s rule to earn their Tickets of Leave. Blaine was resolved to be among them when his three years was up—assuming he could keep Piran from getting him killed.

  “You’re thinking about your homestead again, aren’t you?” Piran said, and shook his head.

  Blaine shrugged, and Ernest chuckled. “It’s a nice change. What do you think about?”

  “Food, mostly,” Ernest replied. “Beer. And the comforts of a pretty brunette I was forced to leave behind.” He sighed, and his regret was only partly affected.

  Piran raised an eyebrow. “I’m compiling as long a list as I can of creative ways to kill someone,” he replied, and while he did not elaborate, they were all certain who that ‘someone’ was.

  Blaine rolled his eyes. “I’ve done that. It’s overrated.” He had spent much of his childhood imagining ways his hated father might die in accidents and not come home. The list had been varied and imaginative, but none of the scenarios had prepared him for what actually happened.

  “Looking forward to something makes it twice as good,” Piran replied.

  “You’re a sick bastard, you know that?”

  Piran chuckled. “Up here, that’s a compliment. And a survival trait,” he added, cocking an eyebrow.

  Despite Piran’s heckling, Blaine found refuge in mentally designing the small house and necessary outbuildings for his someday homestead. Back at Glenreith, he had helped out in the fields out of necessity, and to stay out of his father’s way. It was probably not seemly for the lord’s son to take of his shirt and toil with the laborers, but the exertion had likely bought Ian several more years of life by working off Blaine’s anger.

  Now, that experience stood him in good stead. He had helped to raise barns and build storage sheds. His homestead would need both, as well as a cabin for him to live in. He knew enough about farming from helping with the harvest that he felt confident about raising a garden, and as a child, he had loved tending to the livestock. Ian McFadden might have been noble, but the family’s best days were behind them even before Blaine’s scandal. Perhaps the scion of better-off nobility would never have soiled their hands in the barns or fields, but necessity gave Blaine little choice. Now, those hard experiences might come in handy.

  “So what are you going to do, if you get your Ticket?” Ernest asked, sincerely interested. Blaine guessed that fantasizing about the future—anywhere but Velant—might be a common escape.

  “We get some land, and a bag of coins as our portion when we leave the prison,” Blaine said. “I figure that money has to mostly go for seed and livestock and tools. I can cut down trees for lumber. And I know a bit about raising crops and keeping chickens. A cabin can’t be too hard to build. It can’t be too big, or there’s no way to keep it warm. And then a shed for the tools and livestock. I figure it’ll be small to start. I can always make it bigger.”

  “I hear some of the colonists pool their portions with friends to get a better start,” Ernest said. “That way, more people help with the building and the crops and the animals.”

  “Worth a thought,” Blaine said. If he had to make a list of people he might trust to go in on a homestead together, Piran would be one of them. Dawe Killick and Verran Danning might be good choices, too. Solid, steady Ernest wouldn’t be a bad option, either.

  “Colonists don’t just have to farm,” Piran said. “They can earn a living in Bay-town, if they have the skills.”

  “I thought you didn’t pay any attention to things like that?” Blaine joked.

  Piran shrugged. “I hear things. You’d be surprised.”

  “Like what?” Ernest asked. Mining was boring work, and talking whiled the time away. The mine was dimly lit with lanterns, stuffy despite the cool air outside, and thinking too hard about being far below ground could make any man claustrophobic. Idle chatter kept Blaine’s mind busy, so that it didn’t run to darker territory.

  “Th
ere’s always need for good blacksmiths and talented whores,” Piran said, flashing a rakish grin. “Beyond that, I expect it’s like any village. They’ll need bakers and hedge witches, fishermen, net-makers, carpenters, coopers, and cobblers. Seamstresses and tailors, too, since I figure not everyone can make clothing.”

  “And candle-makers, wagon-makers and wheelwrights,” Ernest said. “Plus sail-makers and boat builders for the fishing fleet.”

  “And don’t forget someone to brew the beer and distill spirits,” Piran added. “I hear that the Crooked House is the best tavern in Bay-town, but sailors are a thirsty bunch. Someone with a talent could probably do well.”

  It was odd, thinking of a ‘normal’ town on the edge of the world, Blaine mused. But the Bay-town residents would need all the same necessities—and long for the same comforts—as the people back in Donderath. I was born noble. I never learned a trade, since I was supposed to inherit Glenreith someday. So I’d best pick mates with skills to bring in money, if I partner up with my homestead. And I guess that means I’m going to be fishing for a lot of herring.

  “So what do you want, if you get your Ticket?” Blaine asked Ernest, knowing Piran would give him a flippant response.

  Ernest considered the question. “I wouldn’t mind a place of my own, or with some friends,” he said finally. “Never had any elbow room growing up with ten brothers and sisters. Build a little place, find a wife, settle down.” His gaze became distant as the pickaxe in his hand rose and fell.

  “I’ve been around boats all my life, so the herring fleet wouldn’t bother me. I might like that, though I suspect the weather up here gets a lot worse than back home. Still,” he mused, “a boat’s a boat. I’m pretty good at patching boats, even made and mended some nets now and again. So maybe that would give me a trade over in Bay-town.”

  “Don’t get your hopes up.” Pig-face’s voice was nasal and grating. “None of the likes of you are going to earn a Ticket. ’Least not to anything except the burying yard.” He laughed heartily at his own joke, poking Piran in the ribs on his way by. Piran stiffened and looked as if he might take a swing at Pig-face, then with great effort took a deep breath and thought better of it.

 
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