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Ice bound kings convicts.., p.8

Ice Bound: King's Convicts II, page 8

 

Ice Bound: King's Convicts II
 


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  “Prokief will have questions,” Blaine muttered as the guards ordered them to the surface.

  “Count on it,” Piran replied, looking smug.

  “He’s not likely to believe us.”

  “The guard saw the monsters,” Piran replied. “The monsters ate Pig-face and his bully boy. We all saw it. There’s nothing left to say.”‘

  Blaine hoped Piran was right. But he doubted Prokief would be as easily satisfied, even with the guards’ testimony. Nothing went easy in Velant.

  PART SIX: Retribution

  “Lies! All lies!” Prokief backhanded Blaine across the face hard enough to split his lip. “I want to know what happened to my overseer and his guard!”

  “He was eaten by a monster,” Piran snapped. “What in Raka else is there to tell you?”

  Prokief wheeled, punching Piran in the face, breaking his nose and splattering blood across the snow. “I know you’re lying. I want the truth, or you’ll all stay here until you freeze!”

  The nine surviving prisoners knelt in the snow in Velant’s parade ground, hands bound behind their backs. The other convicts were confined to barracks, but the interrogation took place in view of all of the buildings, designed to be a demonstration for the rest to take to heart. As angry as Prokief was about Pig-face’s death, Blaine was also sure the commander was furious that he and Piran had not been caught among the rioters, which would have given Prokief the excuse for condemning them to death.

  “The monsters are real,” Shorty protested, drawing off Prokief before he could strike Blaine or Piran again. “Your guards know it. You have to know it, too. That’s why you sent the rioters to the deep levels.”

  Blaine and the others had been out in the parade ground for several candlemarks, long enough that Blaine’s feet and hands were numb. The cold quickly clotted the blood on his lip, and slowed the swelling. A glance at the others suggested that the frigid temperatures were taking their toll. Bickle was shivering convulsively. All of them were red-faced from the wind and cold, and if Prokief kept them out much longer, they were likely to lose a few fingers and toes to frostbite, if not a nose or ear.

  Prokief clubbed Shorty with his fist so hard that it knocked the prisoner to the ground. “You know it’s true,” Shorty replied defiantly. “We were lucky to get out alive.”

  Commander Prokief was a bear of a man. He was unusually tall and built large and solid, ham-fisted and thick-necked. He mocked the weather by wearing no hat, and the arctic wind tossed his dark hair like a stormcloud around his head. Blaine guessed that Prokief weighed at least as much as he and Piran together, but Prokief had the solid muscle of a bull. Tales abounded of Prokief’s rages, times when he had beaten one or more inmates—or guards—to death with his bare hands.

  The spark that fuelled those rages usually bore little connection to reality. At his best, Prokief was coherent but cruel. Raging, he was beyond reason, caught up in his own fury. It was clear from his repeated questioning that he did not accept their report of what had happened, and Blaine had no idea what version Prokief wanted to hear, or whether anything they said could appease his temper.

  One glance at the guards who had also survived the monsters’ attack told Blaine Prokief would not be easily appeased. They stood at attention, faces bruised and eyes blackened, a sure sign that Prokief had made his disappointment clear.

  Prokief gave a feral growl and stalked toward Shorty, and the look in his eyes was murderous. Shorty was bleeding from one ear and the side of his mouth, but he lay where he fell, staring down Prokief as the commander headed to deliver more abuse.

  Prokief snatched Shorty from the ground and shook him like a rag doll. He slammed Shorty to the dirt, and landed a savage kick to the ribs. Shorty grunted a curse but dared not fight back, though with his hands bound there was little he could offer in his own defense.

  “What if we killed the monsters, would that satisfy you?” The words were out of Blaine’s mouth before he had time to think. He just wanted to save Shorty’s life—and get the rest of them out of the freezing cold and away from Prokief’s beatings.

  “Are you mad?” Bickle muttered.

  “Maybe,” Blaine allowed. “But if we do it, will that be enough for you?”

  Prokief glowered at him, contempt and hatred glinting in his dark eyes. “For now,” he snarled, “this time.”

  With a wave of his hand, Prokief signalled for the guards to cut the prisoners’ bonds. Blaine and Piran helped Shorty get to his feet, while Torr and Jame steadied Bickle, who looked like he was already succumbing to ice sickness.

  Once they got inside the barracks, Dawe, Verran, and the other convicts moved to help Shorty and Bickle, bringing strips of rags for bandages and cups of hot water to drink.

  Jame and Ernest rounded on Blaine. “Are you trying to do Prokief’s work for him?” Jame demanded. He advanced on Blaine as if he intended to take a swing. Blaine’s fist balled to defend himself. Piran stepped between him.

  “Shut your mouth, or by Torven, I’ll shut it for you,” Piran growled. Blaine moved up beside him.

  “Prokief was going to keep us out there until we died from the cold or he beat us to death,” Blaine retorted. “We didn’t have any chance out there.”

  “And you think that going hunting for those monsters gives us a chance?” Ernest argued. “No one’s seen the men who got sent to the deep places.”

  “Pretty sure they’re dead,” Piran replied as if the thought did not disturb him. “Pretty sure Prokief knows it, too.”

  “I think Prokief was so angry because he does know there are things living in the deep places. That’s what got him scared—he has no idea what to do about it,” Blaine answered. “We can go on the way we’ve been going, and have a man get picked of now and again, until we’re all gone—”

  “Or we can just march down like pigs to the slaughter and make it easy for them,” Jame finished. Jaston and Eddles had come to stand behind Jame.

  “What if we got rid of the monsters once and for all?” Blaine suggested. “So that we didn’t have to worry about them anymore—and neither did Prokief and the guards.”

  “How are you gonna do that?” Jaston demanded.

  Blaine and Piran exchanged a glance. “We’ve got a plan,” Blaine replied. “And it’ll solve the problem—but maybe not in the way Prokief expects.”

  Two days later, Blaine and the other survivors of the attack headed back into the mines, accompanied by the guards who had also seen the monsters. It was clear the guards intended to do as little as possible, resolutely stopping just inside the mouth of the mine.

  “We wait here,” the lead guard said. “You can tell us all about it if you come back out.”

  The other guards laughed, and the sound echoed down the dark corridors.

  “If Prokief doesn’t believe in monsters, how come he pulled the rest of the miners out today?” Piran muttered. His nose had been set, but it was badly swollen, which made his voice sound muffled.

  “He believes,” Blaine said. “He’s just hoping that we’ll kill the monsters and the monsters will kill us, solving two problems at once.”

  “What about the men Prokief sent down here to die?” Jaston’s voice sounded thin with fear. “We’ve just volunteered to join them.”

  “That’s not part of the plan,” Piran said, clapping Jaston on the shoulder. “We’ve got every intention of getting back out.” Jaston gave Piran a look that made it clear he was unconvinced.

  “Grab your packs.” Blaine nodded toward the bundles of torches, rag-wrapped lengths of wood. They had four lanterns among them, safer in the depths of the mine than open flame, but the trade-off was the brightness of the light and the size of the area illuminated. The lanterns shielded the fire, reducing the risk of explosion, but provided a dim light that did not extend far ahead of them.

  “And your picks,” Piran added. Despite the danger, Prokief had refused to issue weapons of any kind, so the group was armed only with their mining p
ickaxes. Jame and Piran had their knives, and Blaine was certain his friend had some of Kestel’s poison, along with a few other bits of contraband Blaine was counting on to turn the situation in their favor.

  This mine was one of three on Edgeland, and the largest of them all. Blaine had worked in the mine for most of his time in Velant and never gone beyond the second level. Prokief no doubt expected them to follow the path of the doomed men into the mine’s depths, but Blaine and Piran had other plans.

  “What’s Piran looking at?” Jame asked once they were out of earshot of the guards.

  “Where’d he get that map?” Bickle was close enough to look over Piran’s shoulder.

  “Doesn’t matter where it came from,” Piran said. “What does matter is what the map shows. Caves. And if this is right, we don’t have to go all the way down to get to where the monsters live. We can do it right through here,” he added, leading the way into the room they had cleared of the cave-in.

  “We think the monsters move through the caves,” Blaine explained. “We see them when the mine tunnels break through into their caverns.”

  “So instead of hunting through miles of dark tunnels, we go where we’re sure the monsters are—because it’s where they lived before there was a mine,” Piran finished. He moved around the room, holding his lantern in one hand and rotating the map with the other, aligning the two.

  “Dig here,” he said, pointing to an area of the wall where they had previously broken through.

  “How do we know the air in there isn’t bad?” Bickle asked.

  “We don’t,” Blaine replied. “In fact, I’d expect it will get that way, the deeper we go.”

  “You really are trying to kill us,” Torr grumbled.

  Blaine turned to face Torr. “You want to go back and face Prokief and finish freezing to death on the parade ground? Fine with me. He’s not going to believe us until we bring a couple of those monsters back dead, and we can convince him we’ve gotten rid of the threat. So what’ll it be?”

  Torr turned back to his work with a curse. Piran held his lantern aloft, and positioned the other lanterns so they illuminated the area as they worked. It did not take long for their picks to break through in the place Kestel’s map indicated.

  Piran dug in his pack and removed a small handmade cage with two brown mice inside. “Here,” he said, handing the cage to Ernest. “If the mice start to act funny, we’re getting into bad air.”

  Torr and Bickle eyed the mice as if Piran had lost his senses. “Mice?” Bickle said incredulously.

  Piran nodded. “Velant’s not the only place with mines, you know. Got them back in Donderath, too. Some of the men I soldiered with worked in the mines, and they told how the crews would take a bird or some mice down with them to tell when the air was getting bad.” His lip twisted. “Of course, Prokief wouldn’t spare a rat to save any of us.”

  “We’re kicking up some dust,” Blaine observed. Fine dust and bad air were a recipe for combustion. “Mind you keep the lanterns closed,” he warned the men.

  Piran nodded. “If anything’s down here, it’s going to know we’re coming.”

  After about a candlemark, they had a large enough opening to step through into the cave. Blaine went first, lantern in one hand and pickaxe in the other.

  “Torven take my soul,” Ernest murmured in awe as he stepped through behind Blaine, close enough to remain in the lantern’s glow. He held the caged mice at arm’s length, and clutched his pickaxe with his other hand.

  Their lanterns barely made a dent in the gloom, but what they could see astonished Blaine with its unexpected beauty. Unlike the rough-hewn walls of the mine, the cave’s contours were sculpted by water and time. No harsh axe-marks marred the stone. Crystals sparkled in the lantern’s light, star-like clusters of ice that covered the cave’s roof and outcroppings.

  “Do you think anyone else has ever been here?” Bickle asked in a voice just above a whisper. Despite the danger, the sight was breathtaking. Shorty and Torr followed, looking around themselves as if they had entered another world.

  “Someone drew the map and got it back out,” Piran observed, bringing up the rear. He pointed to a dark streak, likely blood from the men who were dragged away by monsters. “Let’s keep our wits about us, so we can live to tell the story.”

  They moved forward cautiously, careful not to outpace their light. Blaine had explored a few caves as a boy near his home at Glenreith, and he remembered more than one close call with a sudden drop-off or the dark water of a hidden, depthless pool.

  “Something’s been through here,” Ernest said, bending to examine the rock floor. He directed the light downward for a better view. “Look,” he said, pointing out what looked like partial tracks in the fine dust on the cave floor.

  The mice chattered nervously. “Keep moving,” Blaine urged. “We need to find evidence of the monsters.”

  “Evidence is fine,” Jame replied. “But I’d just as soon not find the monsters themselves.”

  The cave floor sloped downward sharply in places, forcing them to move carefully to avoid a misstep. Piran ventured away from the cave wall, raising his lantern over his head to give them a better sense of the cave. The vault was perhaps a dozen feet over their heads, but the far walls were lost in shadow.

  “Don’t stray too far,” Bickle warned. “You’re the one with the map.”

  Blaine led them through a second, smaller chamber. Unlike the first room, this section had fewer ice clusters, and was hardly wider than a tunnel. But as Blaine neared the entrance to the next room, he paused, sniffing the air.

  “Firedamp?” Torr asked, worried.

  Blaine shook his head and held a finger to his lip, then raised his pickaxe. The others readied their weapons in response. He hoped that he was wrong about the stench, but it smelled to him of rotted meat.

  They stepped through the entrance, and their lanterns reflected from white outcroppings on the floor of the cave room.

  “Those aren’t rocks,” Ernest said quietly. “They’re skulls.”

  “I think we found the men Prokief sent down here,” Bickle added, his voice unsteady.

  Instinct warned Blaine to turn just as four pale reptiles emerged silently from the shadows. Their strange, musky odor combined with the sickly-sweet smell of decomposing flesh, and Blaine forced himself not to retch.

  The corpse-pale lizard-things were large, each the size of a boar. They raised their flat, scaled heads to scent the air, and their eyes glowed red in the lamplight. No audible signal passed among them, but as one, they charged.

  “Now would be a good time to set your trap,” Blaine called to Piran as he swung his pickaxe at the nearest cave monster. The lizards were fast despite their bulk, and sharp claws scrabbled on the rock floor as they moved. The flat, snake-like heads hid mouths with rows of sharp teeth, and their long, flexible necks gave them a viper’s agility to strike.

  Teeth snagged Blaine’s sleeve, narrowly missing his arm. Blaine danced backward, just seconds ahead of the reptile’s claws. His pickaxe’s heavy iron head struck a glancing blow, ripping into the smooth, white scales and tearing a crimson gash. The giant lizard hissed in pain and slithered back out of range, moving with a snake-like grace that sent a chill down Blaine’s spine.

  “We need to kill one of those things to prove we were here,” Piran yelled, fending off one of the monsters. His pick hit hard enough to break bone, and the huge white lizard gave an ear-splitting shriek of pain as it scuttled back. “And someone needs to cover me, because I can’t fight and do what I need to do.”

  “I’ve got Piran,” Ernest said, setting the caged mice atop a rocky shelf and moving into position in case the injured lizard tried to attack. Piran dug into his rucksack, withdrawing a coil of tightly wound cloth twisted into a thin cord, and then dumping his pack of torches into the center of the room.

  Blaine barely had a chance to put his lantern on an outcropping when the next lizard sprang at him, moving with ter
rifying speed. Torr and Bickle held their lanterns as they fought, and the light swung crazily with their movements, casting wild shadows across the cavern.

  “Watch those claws!” Torr yelped, exacting vengeance with his pick for the four deep gashes that scored his shoulder where one of the reptiles had lunged from the darkness.

  Out of the corner of his eye, Blaine saw Piran run for the bundles of torches the others had dropped. A yellow-white lizard slithered from the darkness, striking out with its extendable neck. “Piran, watch out!” Ernest yelled, as he brought his pick down in a deadly arc, sinking the point deep into the monster’s skull.

  “Finish it off!” Piran shouted as he dumped the torches together and began to feed out the coil of cord. “We need one of those things for proof!”

  Ernest ripped the pickaxe forward, cleaving the lizard’s skull almost in half. The big reptile shuddered and then fell over. Ernest approached it carefully, freeing his pickaxe only to bring it down again, severing the head from the neck. “That thing’s body has to weight as much as any of ours,” he said. “I’m not carrying more than the head out of here.”

  Bickle cried out as another of the snake-lizards scuttled out from behind a pile of rocks, and the teeth snapped on his left thigh. He struck the creature with his axe, sinking the point deep into the creature’s shoulder and nearly pulling away one of its legs. Shorty ran to help, hacking furiously at the reptile, ripping his pick through the creature’s flesh in bloody furrows.

  Jame was locked in combat with another of the white lizards, one with a half-moon shaped blaze on its head. More of the creatures began to edge from the shadows. “They’ve got friends!” he yelled. “We can’t hold them all off!” He was bleeding from a set of deep gouges on one thigh and his left arm hung useless, savaged by a bite from one of the creatures. He lunged and dodged erratically, fighting more from rage and madness than with clear intent, or perhaps the bad air was pushing him over the edge of sanity.

 
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