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Ice bound kings convicts.., p.7

Ice Bound: King's Convicts II, page 7


Ice Bound: King's Convicts II

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  Pig-face’s comments had exactly the effect he intended, dampening the mood. Exile itself was not the worst of being sent to Velant, nor—at least to Blaine’s mind—was the scandal of being a criminal. He had accepted the responsibility for his actions. The hardest part to live with was the petty mean-spiritedness of overseers and guards who enforced a pecking order within the ranks of the damned.

  Maybe it’s better in Bay-town, when the colonists aren’t so far under the guards’ control every waking moment, Blaine thought. For some space to do what I please without someone watching over my shoulder, I’d take the homestead farthest from town, convenience be damned.

  To Blaine’s right, Torr’s pickaxe hit the rock wall and sank in deeper than usual. “What in Raka?” he muttered as he struggled to pull his axe free.

  “Looks like you broke through to another room,” Shorty observed as Torr’s pickaxe came free and the rock fell away to reveal a dark hole.

  “There isn’t another room on the other side of us,” Whinny said. “Overseer told us we could mine the whole way across Edgeland from here.”

  “Well, there’s something,” Piran said, intrigued. He signaled for Bickle, Torr, and Shorty to watch the doorway, and led Blaine and Ernest over to have a look.

  “Cool air,” Torr observed. “I wonder if it’s true that there are caves underneath parts of Edgeland.”

  “If there are caves, either Pig-face doesn’t want us to know about them, or he doesn’t know,” Ernest observed quietly.

  “Not likely to do us much good,” Bickle said. “Even if we got into the caves, and even if they went somewhere, you can’t run away up here at the top of the world. There’s nowhere to go.”

  “Maybe that’s why Pig-face isn’t worried,” Whinny replied. “The monsters will get you first.”

  “Too bad the monsters don’t get Pig-face first,” Bickle said.

  Piran met Blaine’s gaze without saying anything. Blaine felt a chill go down his spine.

  That night, Blaine was on kitchen crew, washing out the tin cups and plates afforded to the prisoners. Each one had to be accounted for every night, lest someone steal one and fashion it into a weapon. The three-person group to which he was linked in the mines was the unit to which he was assigned elsewhere in the camp, at least for now. Piran cleaned up garbage, while Ernest brought new plates for Blaine to wash, then carried away (and counted) the clean plates.

  A scratching at the door made Blaine glance in that direction. “Did anyone else hear that?” he asked.

  Piran and Ernest nodded. Carefully, Piran headed toward the door. He grabbed a cord of wood and held it like a bludgeon as Ernest swung the door open wide.

  Kestel Falke dodged inside in a swirl of black cloth and red hair. She moved in a blur that put Piran on his back, still clutching his cord of wood, and sent Ernest across the room. “I came to warn you,” she said.

  Blaine glanced over his shoulder toward the common room. Piran got to his feet and went to stand guard by the door, while Ernest immediately began shuffling tin dishes around to make the maximum noise possible to hide their conversation.

  “You shouldn’t be here,” Blaine said.

  “Well, I’m here,” Kestel replied, hands on hips as if she was daring him to make something of it. After seeing her put Piran on his back with apparent effortlessness and send Ernest reeling, Blaine had no desire to pick a fight.

  “What’s going on?’

  “Pig-face is out for you,” she said. Considering the severity of the punishment if she were to be caught with them—for all of them—she looked cool and unruffled. Maybe the rumors about her being a spy and assassin are really true, Blaine thought. “I overheard two of the guards talking. He wants an excuse to either kill you or send you Below.”

  “Why?” Blaine asked.

  Kestel gave him a scathing look. “I don’t know. Probably your natural charm.” She pushed a bit of torn fabric with markings on it into his hand. “I’ve got to get back. But you did me a good turn. We’re even.”

  “Thanks,” Blaine said, but she was already out the door before he spoke.

  “Well, damn,” Piran said.

  Ernest looked a little dazed from the surprise visit. “What’s on the rag she gave you?”

  Blaine looked down at the scrap of fabric and frowned. “It looks like a map,” he said. “But it doesn’t look like the mine tunnels we use.”

  Piran came over for a look while Ernest watched the door. “Those don’t look like just mine tunnels. I think it’s showing the caves.”

  “Caves.” Blaine echoed.

  Piran nodded. “Yeah. Guess those rumors are true.” He stared at the map. “So she came here to warn us, and gives us this, knowing what we already have.”

  “No real surprise, but nice to get a warning,” Blaine observed. “Pig-face has been out to get us for a while.”

  “Then we’re going to have to do something about Pig-face,” Piran said in a low voice, “before he does something about us.” He smiled. “And I think she was giving us a suggestion on how to make him disappear.”

  PART FIVE: Monsters

  Blaine, Piran, and Ernest went back into the mine the next day. Guards shackled them at the ankles near the entrance to the mine, and they shuffled in.

  The cold air was not frigid enough to keep the bodies of the dead men in the parade yard from decomposing. The stench carried on the air, and even the wood smoke from the chimneys could not mask the smell. Crows and vermin picked at the bodies, making the corpses swing from the nooses, and tearing at those who remained suspended against the whipping posts. The men in the gibbets moaned like the spirits of the damned, denied the relief of shock or death by the warden-mages.

  Most of the prisoners ducked their heads as they passed by the corpses or the gibbets. It was impossible not to see the bodies. Some of the miners who had been friends with the murdered men refused to look away, as if bearing witness to the deaths was a tribute to their fallen comrades.

  Gone, too, were the men sent Below. They had disappeared as if they never existed without even leaving behind a body to be mourned. All that remained were the scant personal items left behind in their bunks that vanished soon after without a trace.

  One of the murdered miners had been from Blaine’s barracks, and two died in the cave-in, while two more were sent Below. Their bunks would go unfilled until the next ships came with new prisoners from Donderath. Until then, the empty spaces were a constant reminder of Pig-face’s vicious temper.

  “Didn’t deserve that…”

  “…supposed to just stand there and be crushed?”

  “…pox take his wretched hide.”

  Men muttered about the deaths once the guards were out of earshot. Even that was courting disaster, since there was always the chance that one of the prisoners might sell information to the guards for favors. The tension in the air was new, potent and dangerous, different from the underlying, ever-present sense of frustration. It reminded Blaine of how it felt in a thunderstorm, right before lightning struck nearby. Tempers were combustible, and it would not take much to fan a spark into a conflagration.

  Since Kestel’s warning the night before, Blaine felt jumpy. He wasn’t sure which had him more on edge; Pig-face’s scheme to get rid of them or Piran’s intention to kill the overseer first. This could end badly either way, he thought. Pig-face could lock us away for the rest of our lives in the Deep. But if we kill him and get caught, Prokief will kill us as slowly and painfully as possible. Damn. There are plenty of ways to lose and only one chance to win.

  Once they were inside the mine, Blaine realized that Piran had managed to move them a bit from their previous spot. All the mining teams gradually moved to reach new areas of the mine room walls, and the change in position was slight, but it placed Piran slightly behind one of the posts holding up the ceiling, where he was out of the guards’ line of sight for some of the time. This room was small with only nine miners: Bickle, Torr, and Shorty were
one team, Jaston, Eddles, and Jame were the second triad, and Blaine, Piran, and Ernest made up the last group.

  No one but he and Piran knew of the map. “Cover for me,” Piran murmured. Blaine and Ernest shifted their positions to better hide Piran from view. Every few strokes, Piran struck to one side. He’s looking for a way into the caves, Blaine thought. From what the map shows, they’ve got to be off to the side and below us somewhere. It’s amazing the mine hasn’t broken through to them more often.

  Then again, it was likely that the original mine had begun in natural caves. If that’s true, then many of these rooms might be part of the cave system. So there are bound to be tunnels or passageways nearby.

  At any other prison, Piran’s zeal would have been part of a plan to escape. But on Edgeland, escape was nearly impossible. Even if they could elude the guards, tracking dogs, and warden-mages, the colonists could not afford to risk Prokief’s wrath by sheltering them, and without the protection of the colony, death was all but certain from the harsh terrain, unforgiving weather, and scarce resources. But Piran wanted something else—a place to hide a body.

  Bickle’s group worked steadily, and whenever Piran began to whistle, theirs was the first triad to pick up the song, however badly off-key. Torr and Shorty moved with the rhythm of long practice. Whinny had come down with a fever too high even for the guards to ignore, and so Jame was shackled in his place.

  Jame’s movements were jerky, and he seemed ill-suited to the work. The pickaxe was too heavy for him to lift properly, and Blaine winced just watching the awkward way Jame swung the tool. It’ll be a wonder if he can move tomorrow, if he doesn’t put the point of that pick through someone’s foot before then, Blaine thought.

  Jame struggled with the pickaxe, but his mind did not seem to be on his work. His eyes darted from one side to the other, and his licked his lips frequently, as if gathering his nerve.

  “Bend your knees and swing from your hips,” Torr suggested. “It’ll save your back.”

  “I’ll do as I please!” Jame snapped. His eyes seemed a bit too wide, his voice a little too thin. Maybe he’s panicking about being belowground, Blaine thought. Some miners struggled in their first days deep in the mines. Best if you don’t think how far down you are, how much rock is over your head, how easily it could all come crashing down.

  “Easy!” Bickle said, with a bit of an edge. “Just trying to help.”

  “I don’t need your help.”

  Bickle and Torr exchanged a glance. “Yeah. Tell us tomorrow when you can’t get out of your bunk. But go ahead. Don’t let us stop you.” They went back to their work, doing their best to stay out of Jame’s way. That was difficult with a length of chain binding them together.

  We’re all on edge, Blaine thought. Pig-face saw to that. Jame looks like he could snap at any moment. And no matter what he does, it won’t be good.

  They worked throughout the morning, and by the time the men came around to ladle out soup and hand everyone a piece of bread, Piran had tested half a dozen spots and found nothing but rock and a few rubies to show for it.

  “Just a little farther,” Piran grunted, sure this time he had found a weak spot. His next swing opened a small hole the size of a coin that led into darkness. Cool air rushed through the opening, stuffy, moist, and filled with a musky scent.

  Before Piran could do more, Pig-face sauntered in, with one of the guards behind him for protection.

  “I would have thought you’d have more by now,” Pig-face observed, looking down at the pile of rock. “Pity.” Without warning, he wheeled, bringing his lash down hard against Torr’s back, who was closest to him.

  “Leave him alone!” Jame lunged like a madman, slashing his knife across Pig-face’s throat in one wild movement that left them all spattered with blood.

  “Damn,” Piran muttered. He moved fast, and buried the blade tainted with Kestel’s poison into the guard’s back who had come in with Pig-face.

  “Open it!” Piran hissed to Blaine as he wrestled the dying guard to the ground. “Everyone—be ready!”

  Blaine swung his pick and broke through the weak spot, opening a larger hole. Something rattled in the deep dark, and the sound made Blaine’s skin crawl. He swung again, and the hole opened wider. This time, he glimpsed movement in the shadows.

  Before he could ready for another swing, a creature exploded from the darkness, crashing through the rock. It burst through with a blast of strength, throwing rock shards in every direction, and landed on six powerful, reptilian legs with feet that had dangerous, sharp claws. A second monster followed just seconds later. Screams sounded, echoing from the rock. In the distance, Blaine could hear the running boot steps of soldiers.

  The monster’s scaled skin was as white as a drowned corpse, and its eyes were red and slitted. The broad, flat head looked from side to side, and its nostrils flared, scenting for blood. Blaine and the shackled prisoners backed away as fast as they could, although the small room gave them little maneuvering space. Behind the broken wall, Blaine heard claws skitter on stone. There are more of those things. And if they come through, we’re dead men. He and Ernest held their picks aloft, ready to kill anything else that came through the hole.

  “Stay still!” Piran ordered, his pick lifted in case the monster came after him. But it was blood the thing was after, and Pig-face was awash in it, as was the guard who lay at his side.

  Some things won’t eat food that’s already dead, Blaine thought. The white lizard monster had no such compunctions, perhaps because food in his darkened world was scarce. It moved with frightening, fluid speed to grab Pig-face in its toothy snout, shaking the body once or twice with enough force to snap a neck. The movement splattered more blood across the chamber, covering the walls and ceiling with flecks.

  Guards appeared at the entrance to the mine room, then drew back when they saw the monster.

  “Stay out!” Piran shouted. “It’s already attacked the overseer and his guard! There’s no telling what it’ll do next!”

  The monster turned at the sound and fixed its red, slitted eyes on Piran. Piran spread his legs wide, squatted down to be on eye level, and let out a roar from the core of his being. Startled, the creature clamped its jaws down on Pig-face’s body. Its companion did the same with the bodyguard, who gave a weak moan until the long, sharp teeth sank into his flesh, nearly biting him in two.

  The red eyes turned to Piran as if daring him to object, then glared at each miner in turn. The room smelled of blood and sweat. For a moment, everything was quiet. The guards outside in the corridor had no desire to risk their own safety. None of the prisoners dared move. Pig-face and his bodyguard were beyond caring.

  “Git!” Piran shouted, charging toward the monsters, his pick raised. Blaine and Ernest were dragged along, following his lead. That cleared a path to the hole to the darkness. With a toss of its head, the monster holding Pig-face raced for the break in the wall, moving with lethal grace. Its companion followed, so quickly they almost blurred. Blaine dove for the opening as soon as the monsters were gone, bringing his pick down hard on an overhang of rock, praying to all the gods that it would fill the gap instead of enlarging the entrance.

  Rock tumbled down, closing the hole in the wall. Blaine looked down at his hands, and saw the pick shaking in his grip.

  “What…in Raka…was that?” One of the guards said, from just outside the doorway.

  All of the men looked pale and shaky. “That,” Piran replied, “was a monster. One we haven’t seen before. Damn fast. And in case you didn’t notice—it ate the Overseer.”

  “Is it gone? Can it come back?” the guard asked. Blaine noticed that the man did not step into the room, and guessed the guard was all right with sacrificing the nine prisoners to save his own skin.

  “We sealed off the hole,” Blaine replied. “Might not want to mine too deep in here. There are more of them down there: I heard them.”

  Belatedly, the guard found his nerve. “How did you a
ll get covered in blood?” he demanded.

  “We fought the thing.” Ernest was the most unlikely liar, and therefore, the one with the most potential to be believed. He was genuinely frightened, and that added to his veracity. “It came through the wall so fast we barely saw it, and it grabbed the Overseer. He fought it, and so did the guard who was with him, but it was all over in the blink of an eye. None of us even had a chance to do anything before it was over.” He shuddered, and Blaine believed Ernest’s horror was entirely real.

  “That’s what you all saw?” the guard challenged, looking from one man to the next. Blaine held his breath. One by one, they nodded. Even Jame appeared to be in possession of himself again. He still looks jumpy, Blaine thought. But if he doesn’t say anything, that might get figured as a reasonable response to a very bad situation. Jame had the presence of mind to hide his knife, and his gaze was focused and sane.

  “Damn,” the guard said. “I’m going to have to explain this to the commander. Where’s the hole?”

  Blaine led him to the spot where rock blocked the entrance to the caves. “There were more of those things,” Blaine said.

  “I heard them.” Ernest nodded.

  “They went away because they had all the food they could carry—for now.” Blaine nodded toward the pile of rocks that sealed off the hole. “I wouldn’t trust those stones to keep those things out if they wanted more meat,” he added, daring to meet the guards’ gaze. “They were big enough to carry off two large men easily. They’re used to the deep places. I bet they could dig through those stones before we knew they were coming.” Blaine saw fear in the guards’ eyes.

  “Gather up what you’ve dug today,” the lead guard ordered. “We’re going to need to make a report of this to the Commander. Until then, this room is sealed.”

  To his credit, Piran managed to keep a smirk from his face until they were headed out of the mine, each man carrying as much rock as he could handle. Blaine’s gaze warned Piran not to say a word. Ernst looked like he was in shock, now that the immediate danger was over. Torr and Bickle were ashen and silent. Shorty feigned boredom, like Piran, but Blaine bet that the bloodshed and terror had touched both of them, though they covered their reactions well. The others just looked haggard. They were all covered in blood, and from the smell, someone had soiled himself.

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