An excerpt from “Sons of Midnight”, a Legacy of Ash novel-in-progress by Christopher Æsc Adams
The Storm’s Descent
That was Chant’s first thought when frantic shouts rose over the camp. He swung down from the bunk and stuffed his feet into his boots. A pair of soldiers from his company stood in the barracks doorway, staring up the mountainside at the cluster of buildings surrounding the minehead. Chant joined them, peering over their shoulders. A bowshot up the mountain, miners swarmed towards the minehead, shovels and picks in hand.
“Poor bastards,” Raphe muttered. Omaré, buckling on her breastplate, just grunted in agreement. The deepest shaft had just reached the two hundred and fifty foot mark. Twenty miners had been in the depths, working the new gallery, hewing out a rich gold vein discovered in just the last few months.
From the overseer’s shanty an alarm gong clanged five times. A cave-in it is then. The signal was repeated, but fell silent in the middle of the fifth stroke as though stilled by someone’s hand. A pause, then three strokes.
“Three? Isn’t that a gas warning?” Chant asked.
Raphe nodded, squinting against the afternoon sun to get a better view of the mine complex. “Lotsa miners millin’ around up there, but none of ‘em going down the hole. Looks like half of Temple Company out there holdin’ ‘em back.”
Chant relaxed slightly. Like many of the small companies that made up their mercenary band, Temple Company’s ranks were filled with veterans of the Arrehan border campaigns. Temple Company’s tanra, Crane Segre, was widely considered to be one of the toughest warleaders to have drawn a blade in those campaigns. Segre and his warriors would keep order until the mine foreman arrived.
The gong rang again, cutting through the shouts of the crowd. Six strokes.
“Son-of-a-whore,” Chant hissed, his stomach leaping with fear and anticipation. Running to his gear chest he yanked it open and pulled out his sheathed sword and belt.
Six strokes. The one signal Anvil Company had not yet heard during its three month assignment to the high mountain settlement. The signal that the mine was under attack.
“Come on, slugs!” Halfwolf burst through the door from the officer’s bunkroom. She snatched Chant’s helmet from his bunk and flung it at him as she thundered past. Chant caught it, the impact stinging his palms. The Lash charged out the front door of the barracks room, drawing the company along in the wake of her passage. Over her shoulder she shouted, “Last one to the gate gets dog-watch for a month!” She sprinted through the mining camp towards the main gates. Within the gates, at the foot of the watchtower, a squat blockhouse served as the company’s armoury and headquarters.
Chant slung the helm’s chinstrap over his forearm and attempted to buckle his sword belt as he ran. He reached the blockhouse steps behind Raphe. The older man was panting and his ruddy face was sheened with sweat, though he grinned at Chant wolfishly. “Don’t worry, lad. I’ll keep Silde warm enough on those long, cold nights while you’re walking sentry.”
Chant cursed, then laughed. “Doesn’t matter – the Lash wasn’t even watching. She’s up getting the news from Leathers.”
The young soldier dug an elbow into Raphe’s ribs as he pushed past, hoping to catch a glimpse of Sable, the reclusive commander of the Storm of Pharos. As a mercenary unit, the Storm had seen many capable commanders in its three hundred year history. Tales of Sable’s legendary victories were told around the fires at night, but even the officers lowered their voices to a whisper as they discussed the ferocity of the man’s temper.
Sable was nowhere to be seen, but Chant could see Halfwolf near the blockhouse door with Jace and Crane Segre, the respective tanras of Anvil and Temple Companies. They were drawn in a tight circle about a small, weathered man who leaned on a short stabbing spear as though it were a walking stick. Chant didn’t need to see the man’s face to recognize Leathers, Sable’s ferocious, one-eyed Lash. Leathers gestured towards the minehead with his spear while speaking intently to both tanras. Chant strained to make out what he said, but the wind carried away his words.
Finally the shatani’s Lash leaned back and waved his spear in dismissal. Jace, wearing a sour expression, sketched a vague salute and strode back towards his waiting company. He stroked his beard thoughtfully as he walked.
Behind him, Halfwolf raised the Anvil Company standard and signalled the warriors into ‘ready’ formation, a square that should have consisted of three ranks of three. The right rear position was vacant, and Chant had to force himself to look forward, ignoring Fetch’s still-painful absence.
Taking his assigned place in the centre of the formation, Chant shook his head. “It can’t be an attack,” he muttered. “Nobody’s on the walls but the day watch. And they’re just leaning on their spears.”
A middle-aged woman in well-worn battle gear stood a pace behind Chant. She slapped his shoulder. “So what were the six bells all about, then?”
“Whatever it is, Brace, it’s not good,” Raphe growled back at them from the front rank. He tipped his head in the direction of their tanra. “I ain’t seen Jace look this grim since the old Lash lost his arm at Sorrows last year.”
Brace nodded slowly, her gaze straying up the mountainside. “Well, ain’t that curious.”
“What is it?” asked Chant.
“Crane’s got half-a-dozen archers on the roof of the smelter. Half-circle covering formation.”
“Good field of fire up there,” Raphe said approvingly. “Clear down to the gates.”
“’Cepting, they’re not facing the gates. They’re covering the mouth of the mine.” Brace snapped to smart attention as the tanra approached the company.
Chant was about to reply when the Lash slipped through the formation, waving her knout in his face. “Dog-watch for you, slug. Thirty sunrises. You need some toughening up, I reckon, if a paunchy sack o’ dung like Raphe here can outrun you.” She slapped the rawhide braids of her whip across Chant’s cheek, then spun and took up her position next to the tanra facing the company.
His face burned with embarrassment. “The hottest forge makes the strongest sword,” murmured Brace.
Anvil Company’s creed. Chant didn’t rise to the jibe.
Just how hot is it going to get? he wondered, as Jace began to issue their orders.
* * *
Grey Jace stood on the watchtower’s open rooftop. He held a strung bow, and a quiver of arrows hung at his hip.
Raia – the Lash known as Halfwolf – sat cross-legged on the plank roof, her back against the heavy timber wall. She watched with curiousity as the tanra removed an arrow from his quiver. Instead of an iron broadhead point, the arrow was tipped with what appeared to be a black, glossy bird’s beak, with a tuft of black feathers encircling the shaft just behind it.
Jace laid the arrow on the parapet and carefully tied a scrap of parchment to the arrowshaft.
“How long?” she asked.
“It will reach Reikos before moonrise. If the shatani is there we’ll have fresh orders by dawn.”
He smiled grimly. “You’ve never seen Cernese adepts in battle. This is one of their lesser tricks.”
He nocked the arrow to the string. Drawing the bow, he held it to the sky and loosed it. The shaft arced into the twilight, almost lost against the purple clouds. Then it was gone, and there was only a ragged rook high above them.
It circled once. With a harsh cry, it winged north with a speed that stole Raia’s breath.
Jace lowered the bow. “And now we wait.”
* * *
The mining camp had been unusually quiet since Anvil Company arrived in the Khere Akurzai – the Iron Mountains – in late spring. The nearest settlement was Semir, a half-day’s ride down the twisting mountain trail, where the gold from the mine was kept in a well-guarded storehouse before being loaded on wagons for the long road north to Reikos.
Anvil Company had been posted to the camp to keep order, but since the nearest alehouse was in Semir, drunken rowdiness was rare. Batches of homebrew appeared in the bunkhouses now and then, derived from fermented potato peels or mountain berries. The occasional fistfight and some broken furniture was the typical result of the clandestine revelries, but the concoctions left the miners with such raging headaches and knotted bellies that the warriors of Anvil Company usually considered the matter duly punished.
Arrehan raiders were another matter. The nomads usually swept through Kyrion’s Ride, a broad pass through the Khere Akurzai that marked the disputed border between Revannyth and the Kujas Evarh. They would loot and burn villages, racing back through the Ride with their spoils before a Revanni force could catch up with them. The king of Revannyth often sent war bands into the Kujas Evarh on punitive missions, but – while the raiders harried the heavily armed Revanni – when faced with pitched battle the nomads would simply vanish into the trackless grasslands.
Chant Merrick had joined Anvil Company just as the chartered mercenary company had returned from a six month campaign in the rolling steppes of the Kujas Evarh. Chasing ghosts, was the way Raphe had sourly described it. A hundred arrows falling out of the sky, the smell of fresh horseshit, then a dust cloud moving away from you fast as the bloody wind. You can’t fight something like that.
Back in Revannyth, Anvil Company had rejoined all of the other ten-member companies that made up the Storm of Pharos, one of Revannyth’s oldest chartered mercenary bands. Their commission against the Arrehan thankfully complete, the shatani of the Storm, Sable Amaragh, had accepted a new royal commission from the king. In recognition of the costly and difficult campaign against the Arrehan nomads, the Storm had been assigned a sinecure – safeguarding a network of royal holdings along the Tarchëan Way, the ancient road that ran the breadth of southern Revannyth.
Holdings such as the Harl’s Peak mine.
Chant sighed in disgust and kicked at a lump of slag that had been shovelled from the smelter shed. The night wind plucked the muttered curses from his mouth and hurled them away. The eastern sky was clear and black, scattered with stars as sharp and bright as needles. Dawn was still hours away and his fingers, curled around the shaft of his spear, were numb. He leaned back against the wall of the smelter and slapped his arms to get the blood flowing to his chilled hands.
Guarding a mine, Chant thought with irritation.
Finally, a plum commission, Raphe had sighed, his eyes flat and haunted. Away from the golden grass of the Kujas Evarh. A respite from being the hunted instead of the hunters. Companions dead in the saddle, arrows through their throats. Horses thrashing, their legs broken by cunning hidden trenches. Finding sentries in the morning with throats cut, taunts and curses daubed on the side of our tents with their blood.
The final affront, Raphe had insisted, had been awakening to find their warhorses cut from the pickets and replaced by sway-backed donkeys. The sentries were found unharmed nearby, tied and gagged, their mouths packed full of horse dung. An insult that could scarce be borne, Raphe had growled, his face flushed with anger.
Despite the stories, Chant found himself wishing that he had been there on the steppes with his fellow warriors of Anvil Company. Anything had to be better than this – pacing around the mine shantytown in the dark reaches of the night, while miners and warriors alike slumbered, warmed by pot-bellied stoves, just on the other side of the plank walls. Raphe, on the other hand, had been almost weak-kneed at the thought that Anvil Company’s Arrehan campaign might be extended.
The boy recalled another of the many stories Raphe had told of the Kujas Evarh; of coming across another company of the Storm in a circle of flattened grass twenty paces across. All ten mercenaries had been stripped naked, stakes driven through wrists and ankles, pinned out alive for the steppeland predators to feed upon. In all that vast plain Raphe’s company had found them, but it was too late. Flies buzzed thickly, and the golden steppe-grass was slick with blood, for the lions had found them first.
Chant shivered, his scorn quickly dissipated. Perhaps not the Kujas Evarh, after all. Just something that would let him see a small fight – an easy fight – and a chance to earn a name for himself in battle. Something to tell the newer recruits about when he was older. Sounding the alarm and driving off brigands, maybe, or spotting a band of nomads who dared a crossing of the high peaks.
Only a handful of times in the last few centuries had the nomads entered Revannyth anywhere but through the Ride. Scaling the granite cliffs of the Khere Akurzai was work for mountaineers, difficult in the summer, impossible the rest of the year. Once on the northern side of the peaks, weakened and dazed by the altitude, the nomad climbers fell prey to Laurian clans eager to avenge slain kin and burnt homes. The Arrehan, for their part, seemed reluctant to trade their horses for ropes and spikes. For now, it seemed, they kept to the plains.
Chant wished Raphe had drawn patrol with him tonight. He missed the older man’s pugnacious wit and endless flow of anecdotes.
But the Lash had come for Raphe late in the afternoon, quietly telling him to armour up, collect his weapons, and follow her. They had slipped out of the bunkhouse while the rest of the company was in the cookhouse having dinner. No one had seen him since.
A door scraped open behind him and the young warrior started, nearly dropping his spear in his haste to turn. A warm wash of lantern-light spilled onto the gravel path that snaked between the close-set shanties. Chant relaxed when he saw the silhouette of a short, tousle-haired figure in the doorway. “Canny,” he exclaimed in a low voice. “It’s hours to daybreak. What are you doing out?”
Canny shivered, his wild mane of hair waving in the unceasing mountain wind. Hunching deeper into his fur-lined stormcloak, the man pulled the door closed behind him.
“Couldn’t sleep. Besides, it’s cold out, and so are you, I wager. I brought you something that’ll warm both your hands and your heart.” He handed a steaming tankard to Chant, who sniffed and took it eagerly. The first sip burned his lips and tongue, but he took a second one quickly. Canny had mixed cloves and honey into the mulled cider, and it glowed with delicious warmth in Chant’s belly.
He sighed with satisfaction. “You’re the answer to a frozen man’s prayers, Canny.”
The man shrugged. “We all do the gods’ will, each in our own way.”
“True enough.” Chant eyed him uncertainly. He always felt slightly awkward around the older mercenary. Raised in the Grand Kormathos itself, Canny had desperately wanted to be a sibyreld, and he made no secret that he resented the Fateweaving that had instead set him upon a warrior’s path. One of the most highly-educated veterans in the entire Storm, the man could recite all of the Kayhonic Scrolls from memory. A silver Web of Destiny medallion hung on a chain around his neck. Canny lacked only the distinctive blue mantle of a sibyreld to complete the image.
“What do you make of it all?” Chant asked, taking another sip of the posset.
Canny shook his head. “The Lash wouldn’t say much. Just that there was a cave-in along the new spur, but it was small. The miners that came back up are confined to the supply shed. Leathers and the tanras have been in to talk to them a few times, but no one else is allowed to see them. Sentries from Temple Company take turns standing guard at the door to make sure no one tries to sneak in or out.”
“They’re prisoners?” Chant was aghast. “But why? Does Leathers think that someone caused the cave-in deliberately?”
“I don’t think so,” answered Canny slowly. “I think there’s more to it than that. Darrice, from Temple Company, said that the bodies of two miners were brought up out of the mine. Leathers had the bodies taken to the supply shed as well. A couple of Temple Company’s vets wrapped them up and took them out of camp after nightfall to bury them. Darrice said that the miners weren’t killed by any cave-in. They had battle wounds.”
Chant stared at the small man in disbelief. “Blazing hells, Canny! They were inside the mountain a hundred paces below our feet. What did they do, turn on each other?”
Canny flashed a rueful smile. “Well, no one snuck through the main gate, past two sentries at the minehead, then down into the tunnels just to kill some miners.”
The younger warrior snorted at the absurd image before a different thought suddenly sobered him. “Maybe one of the men went mad and attacked the others with his pick. Some strange vapours down there.”
“I don’t know, but I think we’re going to find out. Jace sent Scrawl, Raphe and the Lash to the supply shed tonight. They came back loaded down with rope, lanterns and oil kegs enough to break a mule’s back.”
“We’re going into the hole?”
“It looks that way.”
The younger warrior spat in disgust. “Three months up here on this blasted witch-tit of a mountain, and the first action I see is chasing phantoms in a mine. Not exactly what I’d imagined when I signed on with the Storm.”
“More than phantoms,” Canny said grimly. “We’re to find and bring up the rest of the crew. Two are dead, fourteen are locked in the supply shed. That leaves four of them still down there somewhere.”
The shiver that ran through Chant had nothing to do with the night wind that cut through woollen tunic and leather coat alike.
* * *
“A message-bird just arrived from Semir, lord. From someone in the Storm. It’s for Sable, but he rode for Rhault two days ago to meet the shatani of Darrim’s Barrow.”
The page stood in the doorway, an arrow in his hand. Looming behind him was a man whose horned helmet and grey cloak marked him as one of the Kujan – the elite palace guard. The guard shifted from foot to foot, plainly unhappy that the vizier had been disturbed so late at night.
Aldan Camaurthe stifled a groan of annoyance. His gout-inflamed foot had kept him from getting more than a few hours sleep each of the past three nights. Even the soft down bed was no relief for the unrelenting ache.
“Bring it here, then,” he snapped. The guard opened the door to allow the page to pass. The boy approached the bed and, sketching a bow of respect, handed the arrow to Camaurthe. He began to back away, but froze when the man scowled and motioned for him to stay.
The vizier broke the wax seal depicting the Storm’s standard and unfurled the parchment from the arrow. He smoothed it out upon the heavy brocade bedspread and called for the page to fetch a lamp from a hall sconce. The page hurried to do as he was bid. Camaurthe set the lamp at the bedside and held the message near it.
Camaurthe had to read the message several times to make out the symbols of the simple, blocky battle cipher. While the tanra’s hand was steady, Jace was plainly a man more comfortable wielding a weapon than a quill.
Harl’s Peak mine, Semir. Worked passage found 280’ down, inhabited. 4 miners slain, unknown foe. Camp secure. Await orders/reinforcements. Ulvar Jace / tanra, Anvil Coy., Storm.
The vizier stared, unseeing, at the swirling floral pattern on the bedspread as he absorbed the implications of the message. He winced as he swung out of bed and his afflicted foot touched the rug-strewn floor. “Follow me,” he ordered. The guard fell in behind the limping vizier and the page. They began to wend through the darkened halls of Seagold.
The sound of rolling waves reached them through the shuttered window-slits. They were on the seaward side of the palace now, climbing the granite stairway that led to the royal suite. A cluster of grey-cloaked Kujan warriors stood upon a broad landing, from which several doors opened.
The vizier tipped his head to an older Kujan with a wolf hide hanging down over his grey cloak – the insignia of a watch commander. “Lydis.” The vizier motioned to the page, still bearing the black-fletched arrow. “A Cernese rook just came from Semir. I need to see the king.”
The commander’s eyes flicked from the vizier to the page, then to the guard who had accompanied them. Lydis bowed to the vizier. “His majesty was down-coast all day inspecting the new shipyard at Te’sheira,” the Kujan commander said softly. “They’re two months behind on the construction, and the Guild foreman just submitted a request for an additional five thousand daysilver to cover –“ the commander coughed meaningfully – “unexpected costs. The king’s peevish, tired and saddle-sore.” Lydis grinned. “In short, you’re welcome to him, my lord.”
The vizier gingerly took a step with his swollen foot, cursing softly. “I’m in a humour to match his, I assure you.” The page moved to accompany him, but Camaurthe stopped him with a hand on his shoulder. “Not in there, son. You wait out here with the other boys.”
Lydis rapped on one of the heavy doors, an intricate pattern that was answered shortly by a matching sound from within. A bar was lifted on the inner side, and the commander shouldered the door open for Camaurthe. Another Kujan stood in an alcove in a narrow hallway beyond. Holding the stout oak door bar in one hand, he saluted Lydis and the vizier both. The commander returned the salute and closed the door again.
“Vizier Aldan Camaurthe begs an audience, your Majesty.”
“Send him in, Lydis,” came a weary voice from the room beyond. “But if he doesn’t have a good reason, I may require your assistance in hurling him from the balcony.”
“With pleasure, Majesty,” the Kujan replied, betraying not even a hint of a smile.
Camaurthe hobbled the length of the hall, teeth set against the pain. At the end of the passage he pushed aside a thick tapestry and entered the royal chambers.
A fire crackled in the sitting room hearth. Several chairs were drawn up around the fireplace, and an opened bottle of wine sat on a small side table next to a pair of chased silver goblets. On the far side of the room, a set of carved double doors opened onto a broad stone balcony. One of the doors swung to and fro in the night breeze, hinge squeaking slightly.
Wrapped in a thick burgundy robe, Lynceus – reigning king of Revannyth and fourth monarch of the Kyrion dynasty – leaned against the balcony rail, staring out over the fog-shrouded Warlockwater. Far below, the incoming tide broke against the foot of the sea-girt fortress.
“I’m too tired to sleep, old friend. I was hoping that the sea would lull my thoughts, but all it’s done so far is remind me of the warships I don’t have yet.” As the vizier approached, the king re-entered the chamber, pulling the balcony doors closed behind him. He sank into a fur-draped chair near the fire, and motioned Camaurthe towards a matching seat nearby. “There’s wine on the table,” Lynceus offered. “A Sultissan ruby from Halvor’s vinyards.”
Camaurthe poured himself a goblet and raised it to the king’s health. He sipped and set it back down.
“So what brings you to this side of the palace at this time of night, old man? I don’t think you just came to inquire about the state of my aching backside. Although if you’ll listen, I’ll complain about it readily enough.”
“There’s something of a problem in Semir, majesty.” Camaurthe handed the small parchment to Lynceus, settling back as the king read it over.
The king folded the missive and tapped it against the arm of his chair thoughtfully. He stared into the fire for a few long moments. The vizier took another sip and vowed to order a case of this particular vintage from Halvor.
“What do you make of it?” Lynceus finally asked.
The vizier chose his words carefully. “The nature of the incident is not entirely clear.”
“When I want diplomacy and rhetoric, I’ll call upon one of my ambassadors. What I want from you, Aldan, is insight. So, by the gods, be insightful. I’m too bone weary to play guessing games all night.”
The vizier sighed. “Very well. There are several possibilities. The first is that some Arrehan found a cave system that passes through the entire breadth of the Khere Akurzai. They’ve sent in a raiding party and your miners were unlucky enough to stumble upon them.”
Lynceus studied Camaurthe. He steepled his fingers. “You don’t believe that, though.”
The other man smiled. “No. The nomads have a difficult enough time sleeping under a roof, let alone making their way beneath an entire mountain range.”
“So. The other possibilities?”
“That the miners broke into a cavern where some creature laired.”
“You don’t believe that either.”
“Camaurthe,” Lynceus warned.
“I’ve met this tanra, Ulvar Jace. At the marque investiture ceremony four years ago. A solid man. Very sensible. I’ve spoken to Sable Amaragh about him, and I know his reputation from the Arrehan campaigns. He has a reputation for precision. Attention to detail. ‘A worked passage,’ ” he says. ”Inhabited.”
“Yes, almost 300’ deep. But there’s no chance anyone else could be mining that area without us knowing about it. It has to be a cave.”
“Hmm. A ‘worked passage.’ It doesn’t sound to me like a cave.”
Lynceus sighed in frustration. “Out with it, old man. You have another possibility.”
“Have you read any of Ecrimar’s work?”
The king raised his eyebrows, wondering where the vizier was going with this topic. “Some,” he admitted. “Not as much as my tutors would have liked. I much preferred Sarkine and Hoxa.”
“Pah!” The vizier rolled his eyes. “Poets. Candied turds for the masses. Not exactly a serious scholar, were you? Are you familiar with Ecrimar’s ‘Requiem for the Buried Kingdoms’?”
“The one in which he claims to have visited cities deep underground? Built by some extinct race. What did he call them, the Var?”
“Vral. That’s the one.”
Lynceus shook his head. “I leave children’s tales to children.”
Camaurthe took another sip of wine. “Do you believe in qas?”
“What kind of a question is that? Of course I do.”
“Have you ever seen one?”
“You know I haven’t. And with the blessing of the Ten Thousand, nor shall I. Nor my children.”
“But they exist.”
“I know what you’re getting at, but I’ve seen their works. The ruined towers and walls. Remains of their roads. Broken statues and monuments.”
“And possibly Ulvar Jace has seen the work of another race. A race that is not at all as extinct as Ecrimar believed.”
“You think the miners were attacked by these Vral?”
“It’s possible. Since Ecrimar never encountered any, we have no knowledge of what they might be like. But he did record an expedition into tunnels that he claimed were carved out by these Vral. Leagues upon leagues of tunnels. All elaborately carved. Deserted. And deep.”
Lynceus set his goblet down and leaned back in his seat thoughtfully.
“Where did the passages lead?”
“Ecrimar’s expedition never reached a final destination point like a city or a shrine. But the carvings were apparently quite…disturbing. Ecrimar gave a name to the passages – he called them the Dreadroads.”
* * *
By midmorning the wind had freshened, carrying grit from the tailing piles and flinging it against Chant’s face. Heavy storm clouds formed a low grey vault overhead. There would be rain before noon, he knew. It was the only thing he could think of that made the confined gloom of the mine look appealing.
Anvil Company was gathered around the minehead, fully armed and armoured, with loaded packs on the ground beside them. The tanra, Ulvar Jace, faced his warriors. He stood straight as a lodgepole pine, his hands clasped behind his back. Beside him stood a fierce, hawklike man, whose brown skin was covered with intertwining tattoos. Slung over one shoulder was a fringed leather bag, and a bare-bladed scimitar was thrust through his broad belt.
The Lash paced back and forth before the ranks, looking the warriors over with an appraising eye.
Chant stared straight ahead, letting Raia’s hard gaze slide over him without meeting it. He knew from experience that she noticed the smallest detail if there was something amiss: a bloom of rust beginning on a helmet, links of a mail hauberk split or missing, the seam on the side of a backpack beginning to tear open. Today, apparently, she found his appearance acceptable, for the knout dangled from its loop around her wrist, unused. It could have been his imagination, but he fancied he saw the slightest approving nod as Raia completed her inspection.
Rapid footsteps crunched up the gravel path behind him. The Lash shot a withering glare beyond him. “You’re late, slug. Chant, take up the right flank. You, new slug, you take his old place in the centre rank. You’ll be less in the way there.” The new warrior stepped awkwardly past Chant and stood at attention until the Lash snapped for him to ease up.
“We’ve got new blood, courtesy of Temple Company. This eager pup is on loan as our tenth until the new assignment is finished.” The recruit’s embarrassed smile faltered and finally died under the Lash’s cold glare. “I said he’d just be in the way, but the tanra seems to think we should have full ranks for what’s ahead. If he can thrust that spear in the right direction, he might even be of some use.”
Stony silence. The vacant position in Anvil Company’s ranks had belonged to Fetch, fourth son of a Reikosan noble; an ambitionless but amiable city boy who had, improbably, become Brace’s best friend. Fetch was three months in his grave now, but even the pragmatic Grey Jace had seemed reluctant to fill the boy’s place in the Company. Every company suffered losses, and no warrior cared to admit that one day the vacancy in the ranks might be their own, nor cared to admit that they could be replaced.
Or worse yet, forgotten.
“Our other new blood comes from Sekumbe by way of Grand Kormathos. This here is Ghellvos.”
Canny silently mouthed, “Warlock,” and sneered. Nothing escaped Halfwolf’s notice, and she fixed him with a warning glare.
“You’ll have heard of him from our little disagreement with the Arrehan,” she continued. “Saved the Storm’s arses at Sorrows and Burnt-Oak. At the Battle of Selvidzar he routed Praygale’s riders and earned himself the name Nightbreaker.”
“Well, I’ll be godsdamned,” muttered Brace, awestruck.
Winter whistled. He whispered to Chant, “If Leathers is loaning us the Nightbreaker, lad, our assignment must be a right leaky shitpot.”
“If you haven’t heard of him,” said Halfwolf, “the wise ones can fill in the dumb ones later.”
After scrutinizing the warriors carefully for a few more moments, the Lash turned to Jace. “Anvil Company stands ready for orders, sir.” She stepped back and took her place before the square formation.
Jace nodded. He stepped forward, his hands clasped behind him as he spoke. “New assignment. Temple Company is assuming our camp guard duty until further notice.” He paused as an astonished mutter ran through the company. It was only late summer, and their commission here was to last until the first snowfall. Chant looked to the warriors on either side of him and found his own startled expression mirrored in their faces.
“A digger was working the north face of the new gallery yesterday when there was a small cave-in. Part of the cavern floor collapsed into a hollow beneath the gallery.”
“The others fled back up the shaft, but when the dust cleared and the cavern roof seemed stable, they went back down. The digger’s body was found lying on a pile of rubble at the bottom of a deep hole. The crew tied off some ropes and four men went down to bring up his body.” Looking tired, the tanra paused and wiped a hand over his face.
“That’s when they were attacked.”
“Bereth’s bloody balls,” someone growled.
“Attacked?” exclaimed the quick-tempered Eights. “By what?”
“A gopher, ye great thick bastard,” Brace snapped. “Now shut up and let the tanra talk.”
Jace waited patiently until the nervous chatter subsided. “Two were killed straight off.” He held out his hand, showing them the barbed arrow he had been holding. The head and half of the shaft were stained black with blood. There was utter silence from the company.
“A few of the men holding the ropes were wounded. The two down the hole were hit. They’ve been captured, if they haven’t been slain outright. The rest abandoned the ropes and headed up top. We waited for a few hours to see if anyone was going to come out, but no one appeared. So Raphe, Scrawl and Raia went down last night to do some scouting. Want to tell them what you found, Raphe?”
The older man cleared his throat. “Well, you know I ain’t much of a talker, but…” That drew a few thin smiles. “We went down in the dark, strung together, just movin’ by touch. Hoped to surprise whoever was down there, but there wasn’t nothin’ moving. No sound but water drippin’ out of the rocks. We got to the bottom gallery and waited. After a couple o’ hours we lit up a lantern and looked around. Found a body by the hole. Sat for a while longer, but when we didn’t hear nothin’ else, I went and had a look down the hole.”
He paused, as though searching for the right words before he continued.
“Whatever was down there had gone, and they’d taken the diggers too. Taken’ ’em and run off down this empty tunnel. A great, huge bloody tunnel carved straight through the mountain. Eight paces wide. Arched roof ten paces tall. And it run as far as we could see in either direction. No, not a tunnel – a road.”
Chant shivered. Dog-watch suddenly seemed the most pleasant duty he’d ever drawn. Even the Arrehan plains seemed preferable. You still died there, but it was with the broad sky overhead.
Jace went over the orders carefully, making sure each member of the company knew their duties. At the end the tanra asked if there were any questions, but there were none. The core of the company were blooded veterans.
The Lash glanced at the new warrior from Temple Company. “How about you, Andra?”
It was mercenary tradition that the newest recruit was simply called Andra – “the tenth” – until he or she had drawn blood in battle, or until a newer recruit joined the ranks. After that, the tradition went, they had earned the right to be known by name.
“All clear on what you’re to do?” Raia asked.
“Stay out of the way. Keep a sharp eye all around,” the recruit recited glumly. “And sing out if I see anything.”
The Halfwolf nodded grudging approval. “Leastwise, Temple taught you to listen all right. I hope you can fight passably well, too, if it comes down to it.”
The recruit started to reply, but the tanra cut him off. “Time to go.”
Raia strode ahead of Jace, the company standard snapping in the mountain breeze on the head of her pike. “Rank up, Anvil Company,” she barked. “On me. Close quarters pairs. Grab your packs, and your shit’d better be laced down quiet and tight. Into the shaft with you, two by two.”
The warriors paired off and entered the low-ceilinged tunnel. The Lash lit small oil lanterns, and handed one to every other pair as they passed. In places the rough-hewn walls wept, and the rose granite shone in the lamplight. Stout timber hoardings reinforced the tunnel walls and roof every few paces. The floor was flat and bare, but it began to plunge downwards at a steep angle. The enclosed shaft magnified sound, and Chant could hear his companions’ every breath, every footfall.
They passed a small niche carved into the tunnel wall. An irregularly shaped block of reddish ore was set into it, the studded triangular symbol of Mornion chiselled into the top surface. Though roughly carven, the front face of the block was worn smooth. The calloused hands of countless miners, stroking the small stone shrine for luck as they passed by, had polished it to a gloss.
The god of the earth asked for little more than respect from those who worked his bones.
The tunnel ceiling grew lower as they descended, as though the miners had given up trying to stave off the weight of the mountain that pressed down upon them. Next to Chant, Brace kept up a muttered litany of curses at the encroaching darkness, at height of the tunnel, at the unknown foe that might await them in the lowest gallery. She cursed the name of Raviltarqua, the mischief-making god, who had led the miner’s pick to break through into the tunnels below the mine.
Behind Chant, the new recruit sought to elicit conversation from Omaré. “This is my first time in a mine,” he said, with forced light heartedness. “I’m from Il Roshaan. Lots of farms thereabout. My da always thought I was better suited to working the land than being a warrior, but the Fates don’t care for the wishes of men now, do they? Not much they don’t, no. But when I go home I can tell him I was working the land, all right. Working right under it!” He chuckled quietly to himself.
“Seen much action? Myself, I haven’t. After my Fateweaving I went right from Il Roshaan to the guildhouse in Plagra. I got my training and signed with tanra Crane. He needed to fill his ranks, he did, after all the trouble he had in the south. Did you fight in any of the Arrehan Campaigns?”
Chant heard Omaré’s fetish-woven topknot clatter as the Assai warrior curtly nodded.
“I wanted to,” the recruit said wistfully, “but by the time I finished at the guildhouse the Flame King had called all the companies back to Revannyth. Keeping them close to home in case there was trouble upcountry, my father said. I don’t know but, myself, I hope he sends the Storm south again. Not much for riding, I am – I’m better at weaponplay. A bow, say. Or a staff. I used to beat boys twice my age in the staff bouts during Springfeast. No, horses just plain don’t like me much. Or dogs, for that matter. No, indeed.”
“By the ten thousand gods,” muttered Eights, walking ahead of Chant. “Does the boy never need to take a breath?”
Raphe, walking next to Eights, chuckled softly. “I remember another nervous boy who rattled on like that. We stopped his mouth with his own breechloth when he spoke out on a silent patrol one night. Remember?” Raphe dug his elbow into Eights’ side. The younger man didn’t respond, but even by lanternlight Chant could see the flush creep up the back of Eights’ thick, bull-like neck.
Chant knew what the Temple Company recruit was feeling. He and the green boy were of an age. And until Chant had subdued a drunken, knife-waving miner while breaking up a fight earlier in the summer, he had been Anvil Company’s most recent ‘Andra’.
A wordless hiss from the Lash silenced any further talk during the descent.
Now and then they passed passages that branched off from the main shaft, curving up or down where the miners had followed the veins of ore. Twice the main passage widened into small galleries, and debris left by the miners was scattered in these chambers. Broken lanterns, splintered pick handles, empty water kegs. All of these served as a reminder of the men they hoped to find.
Or the bodies they hoped to recover.
The warriors were tense and alert when they finally reached the lowest gallery. The tanra opened his lantern and blew out the flame as they approached the opening. He motioned for the rest of the warriors to do the same. Soft light glowed from the chamber, where Raphe and Halfwolf had left a pair of lanterns burning.
The steep shaft entered the gallery in a corner. The small cavern was still only partly timbered, and the rough walls and low ceiling attested to the newness of the dig. At the far end of the chamber was a jagged sinkhole in the stone floor, about six paces across. Several thick hemp ropes still snaked down into the hole, their coils spattered with dark, dried blood. Their bitter ends were knotted around spikes driven into the chamber floor
The tanra waved two fingers horizontally, signalling for silence. They moved quickly and quietly, carrying out the orders they had been issued at the mouth of the mine far above. Each of them slipped off their pack and laid them in a stack beside the tunnel mouth. The new recruit stood sentry over the packs, sword trembling slightly as he glanced around.
Halfwolf slipped a bow from an ox-hide case on her back. Hooking it inside her calf, she strung it in a single smooth motion. She nocked an arrow and stood facing the hole in the chamber floor. The tanra, standing next to her, drew his sword.
Scrawl and Chant sidled towards the hole from opposite sides. They crouched low, keeping their shields angled between them and the gaping darkness in the floor. Brace pulled a keg of oil from the supply pack and proceeded to refill all of the company’s lanterns.
Scrawl reached the far end of the chamber first. He moved cautiously, testing the floor to see if it would bear his weight. He paused well back from the hole, craning his neck to look down into the darkness. Brace lit an oil-soaked torch and tossed it across the chamber to Scrawl. Quick as an ermine, the little man plucked it from the air and dropped it into the hole. He stepped back and crouched down. Chant followed his example, trying to keep his entire body in the shelter of his shield.
The torch struck stone below. The company heard the brand sliding on loose stones. Then there was silence. The light flickered, flaring brightly as the flame caught upon the pitch-soaked rags that wrapped the stave.
Chant moved to one of the nearby ropes. He checked the knots and the spikes to ensure that they were secure, forcing himself to ignore the dark stains along the twisted fibre. He nodded to Scrawl, then to the tanra.
Now the moment he had been dreading.
His imagination conjured an image of the sinister barbed arrow in the tanra’s hand. The hiss and slap of a bowstring. The searing kick that would spin him around before dropping him to the gallery floor.
Peering out from behind his shield, Chant looked down into the hole.
Ten paces down the torch flamed from the side of a granite rubble pile. The butt of the torch had fallen between two large slabs of stone, and it had wedged on an almost horizontal angle. A few paces away lay the broken body of a miner, splayed on his back across the mound of stone. An arrow rose from his left shoulder, while another one – broken – jutted from his abdomen.
Chant stared, letting a long breath whistle from between clenched teeth.
The mound of shattered stone lay in the centre of a broad tunnel. As Raphe had reported, the passage was wide enough for two carts to pass abreast. The floor consisted of man-sized slabs of smoothed stone, fitted edge to edge so neatly that there was no need for mortar. A shallow drain ran along each side of the passage.
The walls were hewn from living rock. They had been worked flat, without jagged edges, but not polished. A steady breeze caused the torch to dance and flare, but Chant thought he could make out designs chiselled into portions of the wall. The roof of the tunnel rose to a vaulted arch ten paces above the paving stones.
The miners, Chant realized, had unwittingly triggered the collapse of the floor when they delved down, breaking through into the tunnel slightly to one side of the arch’s peak.
Chant signalled back to the others that the passage appeared clear. The company moved forward cautiously, approaching directly behind the men with the shields.
“All right,” the Lash said quietly. “Down in pairs. We’ll have three bows ready up here. If you see or hear anything, get back up those ropes like your asses are on fire.” She turned and nodded to two warriors. “Raphe and Winter – you’re first. Brace and Eights next. Omaré and Canny. Scrawl, you’re with Andra. Ghellvos, down last.” She slapped the Temple Company recruit on the shoulder. “See that you watch Scrawl’s back, dammit – he’s old and he needs help just getting his boots on in the morning.” Without taking his eyes from the hole, Scrawl mimed an obscene gesture behind Raia’s back.
Raphe and Winter – the Company’s most experienced warriors – slipped down the ropes, hardly daring to breathe as their weight and motion dislodged a scattering of loose stone. They reached the pile and crouched back to back, peering down the passage in opposite directions. As the second pair’s boots touched the rubble, the first two men knotted a rope beneath the miner’s arms, around his chest. Those above hauled the body up as quickly as they could, the stiff, broken form spinning slowly as it ascended. The body was pulled over the lip of the hole and the rest of the company quickly slid down into the passageway.
Soon just the Lash was left in the mine gallery guarding the ropes, the company’s only link with the surface. Grey Jace looked up at Raia, a broad grin flashing through his short-cropped beard. “If this passage is as big as it looks, we’ll be back for supplies before midnight. Sorry to leave you behind, Lash, but I’m counting on you.”
Halfwolf’s only answer was to raise her bare sword in a battlefield salute.
The tanra squinted against the torchlight to see if he could see anything unusual in either direction. “One way’s much the same as the other, I suppose.” Grey Jace cautiously picked his way down the mound of rubble. He motioned for Raphe and Scrawl to scout ahead, while Brace stood guard down the back passage. The rest of the warriors knelt on the passage floor, lighting several lanterns from the crackling torch.
Soon the passage was awash in light, and Chant could make out more details of the stonework. A single narrow panel at shoulder height was incised with patterns of lines and loops, points and crosses. At odd intervals, the pattern was broken by stylized representations of fish, scorpions, bats, spiders, beetles and centipedes, as well as many unrecognizable shapes.
“Is that writing?” a low voice asked, and Chant found Eights standing at his shoulder, staring at the wall in wonder.
Chant nodded. “I think so. I read a little bit of High Rukaran. I can write my name and a few common words, but I don’t recognize any of this. I think it’s a different language.”
“I don’t know.” Chant shrugged. “The passage is big enough for them, certainly. But the arrow that Grey showed us was too small. It’s from a man-sized bow. Qas would have weapons sized to them. Their arrows would be twice as big.”
Andra looked one way, then the other, peering around the mound of rubble where Brace now paced warily. The recruit shook his head. He raised the lantern and gestured to the walls. “That’s some trouble someone’s gone to, isn’t it? I mean, how long do you think it would’ve taken to do all this?”
“Months. Years,” said Chant. “And where in the cold black hells does it go?”
A hum and a choking gasp cut off the reply. Chant whirled, sword raised.
Andra was sliding down the mound, eyes wide, kicking convulsively. Jace was falling, and oh, by the thousand names of the Huntress, the blood.
So much blood.