Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Down in the Darkness Deep--Part 22

The guards came as Aethelstan and his brother were eating their stew.

"All right," snapped the hatchet-faced Erl who went by the name ‘Abgar’, as he strode into the cave, glancing around it at the dozens of Milesians therein. "We’re looking for the one of you who they call ‘the Graharz’!" He rolled his eyes, and slapped the cudgel he carried in his hands. "Whatever that means."

"The grey-haired," answered Aethelstan softly. "It is a title of respect."

If he’d had a stray hope that Abgar wouldn’t hear him, they were quickly dashed. "What was that you said, Milesian?" he said, the younger, better-dressed Erl who’d come in with him following swiftly on his heels.

"Graharz means grey-haired," said Aethelstan. "As I said, it’s a title."

Abgar snickered. "Well, we’re glad that you’ve instructed us in how to speak to your lordship…"

"Except he isn’t the Graharz," said his brother. "I am."

The other Erl glared at him. "Then why didn’t you say anything when called?" snapped the young man.

"I would have, but then my brother answered your questions, and you became quite preoccupied with him," noted the Graharz.

Abgar narrowed his eyes, and raised his cudgel. "What is it that makes you two so very clever for Milesians, hmmm? Most of your fellows keep quiet, and do as they’re told…"

"They aren’t our fellows," said Aethelstan. "We’re of the Revered Band, sworn to the Great Mother of Night." He shrugged. "As for why we talk to you when others are all but silent--we know your tongue, just as we follow your faith. Of course we answer more fully than the others. We can."

"Well, aren’t you clever," hissed the other Erl.

"He’s not really," muttered the Graharz. "Merely talkative." He rose calmly to his feet. "Now… it was my understanding that it was I you were seeking…"

"Slave Graharz," said the young Erl, "We decide what we’re seeking. Not you."

Abgar fixed his younger counterpart with a withering glance. "Actually, it is Lord Nycetus who decides what we’re seeking. And he said the Graharz." He turned to the Graharz. "So come with us then. Quickly."

The Graharz gave a deep bow. "Of course, sir. Of…" And then he tossed the dirt he’d gathered in his hands at Abgar’s face. The Erl reared back, blinded for the moment--but that was all it took. The Graharz leapt at him, and bore him to the ground. The younger Erl gave a startled cry, staring in shock for a moment, then at last gathering his nerve to rush at the Milesian warrior. The Graharz lashed out with a powerful kick that sent him toppling to the ground. Abgar, still pinned by the Milesian’s powerful arms, gave a shriek.

"My hand’s… gone cold! Gone… cold…" muttered the older Erl.

"Help! Help!" shrieked the younger one. "He’s gone mad! Mad! Help!"

Other guards rushed in, eventually, and wrested the Graharz from Abgar. "Cold… cold… can’t feel my legs…" muttered Abgar, whose neck was laying at an angle necks generally did not go in.

The pale-haired Ogre they called Isengrim glanced at the younger Erl, who was still laying on the ground. "Lady’s name, you twit, you let one man do this…?"

"He… he had help," muttered the young man nervously. "A…" He looked around, but Aethelstan was gone. "It doesn’t matter. Bring him up. He’s only dug a deeper hole for himself…"

"Isn’t that his job?" said the cross-eyed Goblin.

Abgar said something indistinguishable, and then shut his eyes, his breaths coming shallower, and ever harder, leaving all to wonder when the last would come.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Down in the Darkness Deep--Part 21

Cheimarrhus sat there in the mines’ barracks, wondering just how it was he’d been outfaced by that fat fool Nycetus. It was not simply that the man knew not only of the widely-rumored scandal of his carrying-ons with Princess Nebthet but the more hushed up scandal of what had happened with… the girl. The injustice of it all stung his cheeks. That fat, ill-bred sybarite, using that simple mistake against him, a noble of blood just a shade beneath the Blood Royal! And the worst part was the girl herself--highborn, of course, or else it would have been no crime at all, but still of an undistinguished family, an inconsequential little thing, of no account. Why, he did not even remember her name and was uncertain that she’d ever told him.

It’d had been that sort of party.

And now--because of that simple mistake on his part--and the whinings of Nebthet, which he was sure played a part--he was here, a pathetic exile, toiling to keep these wretched slaves in order at the whims of that pederastical shamble of a lower Magnate. Others were earning honor, glory and wealth in service to the Undying King of Kings, but not he. No, he was rusting here.

Once again, he wondered if there was a soul so wretched in all Mount Cthonique, and once again, supposed not.

“Oy,” came the harsh voice of Abgar. “Yer nibs!”

Cheimarrhus glanced up at the brutish legate, who was regarding him with a certain vicious pleasure. “Do you mean me?” he muttered.

“So you can be taught!” declared Abgar with a chuckle. “Lord Nycetus has some scum he wants detained. Plotters. Seeing as you’re so eager to crack heads, I thought you might enjoy this.”

“So he has decided to do something,” said Cheimarrhus, with a shake of his head. “Well, it is good to see that we are not simply to sit around and give these slaves treats and kisses.”

Abgar’s hard face twisted into a scowl. “Do not mock Nycetus. He’s the wiliest man ever to run these mines, and that’s why he’s done it so long. Plenty of men have lost their shirts trying to make a profit here--but not Nycetus. He’s made what he’s paid into these mines a hundredfold.” He leaned forward. “Your family may be finer, yer nibs, but Nycetus could buy and sell the whole lot of them, and not break a sweat, nor begin to pauper himself.”

Cheimarrhus stared at the man. “And yet with all that wealth, he just stays here…”

Abgar shrugged. “No reason to let go of a good thing,” he noted. “But don’t fool yourself. His Lordship has a long reach, and more interests than you realize. The day will come that those who down at him now will be begging his favors.” He chuckled. “Indeed, it’s already coming--but it will come further.”

“How glorious,” said Cheimarrhus, rising to his feet. “And what about this day so fills you with pride?”

“He rewards good service,” answered Abgar. “And I’ve given him the very best.” He regarded Cheimarrhus confidentially. “When the Holy Empire comes south--and it will come south--there will be another army there in the service of the Undying One, who will turn them back. And it will be serving under Lord Nycetus’ banner. And under my command.”

Cheimarrhus blinked. As much as he wished to dismiss this as idle boasting, it sounded… horribly plausible. “So why isn’t he sending this army out now?” he asked.

“The Northern League is finished,” answered Abgar. “Why waste his men and his coin bludgeoning it into submission when he can let other men do that, and so have his full strength for the real foe?” He shook his head. “There’s the real glory for you, nibs. And a war that will put two coins in the pocket for every coin that is spent. Why, we’ve got most of the arms right here!” He chuckled. “And you’ve gone and made him into an enemy. Foolish lad.”

Cheimarrhus scowled. “Oh, let’s go get these plotters you were talking of. I find I am truly in the mood to cause some grievous harm.”

“Well, hopefully it’ll be something you’re useful at,” noted Abgar, as they left the barracks.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Down in the Darkness Deep--Part 20

The soup landed cleanly into the Graharz’s cup. “There is turnip in that,” said Marduk quietly.

The Graharz gave a rueful nod. “Thank you, I suppose.”

“Better turnip then rat,” noted Marduke.

“You sure about that?” asked Aethelstan. “There’s meat on rats.”

Even Marduk’s deformed face couldn’t hide its amusement. “You really don’t know our rats very well, do you?” he said quietly.

Aethelstan sighed and offered his bowl. “Give me my turnip.” As Marduk ladled out the stew, he eyed the brownish goo suspiciously. “What’s in it besides turnips?” he asked.

Marduk considered things for a moment. “Nothing that will kill you,” he said at last.

“That’s a hideously broad range of things,” said Aethelstan.

“And that’s an apt description of the stew you’ve just produced,” said Marduk. “But your other choice is starving.” He looked the Milesian in the eye. “Pick the stew. It is the better option.”

Aethelstan sighed and began to eat. “Oy, Creeper!” cried the cross-eyed Goblin guard, passing by. “Move along, scum! You’ve a job to do.”

The Milesians watched the subtle change come over the hunchback’s features, as he turned to face the guard. “Of course, sir, of course. I will do it, sir, I will.” Marduk began to hobble along. “On it, sir, on it…”

The Goblin gave a dull, satisfied nod and then moved on. Marduk stopped, having move a miniscule distance during all this.

“How can you let them treat you like that?” asked the Graharz quietly.

“Easily,” said Marduk. “I’m a slave, and have been one all my life. A man learns to do what he must to live, when the lash is his teacher.” He gave a shrug with his deformed shoulders. “I am not a proud man. I cannot afford to be. I take care of the small scrap that is mine, and occasionally help others do the same.” He chuckled quietly. “Never let it be said that Marduk of Cthonique doesn’t know his destiny.”

“And what if you could be free?” asked the Graharz.

Marduk gestured to his clubfoot. “For how long? No, no, my life may be a poor thing, but I’ve no wish to shorten it too much. At least one other would mourn its passing beside myself. That’s enough to make it too precious to lose for an hour.”

The Graharz shook his head. “I think you underestimate the value of freedom,” he said.

“That is likely so,” answered Marduk. “Having never known it, I have nothing to compare it to.”

“I don’t think that’s true,” said the Graharz, smiling. “I think you can sense it, just a wildflower growing in a shadowed wood can sense the sun. And long for it.”

“Then, sir, you are the first man to compare me to a flower, a bit of flattery that I shall treasure for my remaining days,” said Marduk with a crude bow. “Now--I’ve tarried long enough. One bit of sharp words they forget. Two, and they start noting things.”

“What if…?” began the Graharz.

“Speak no more,” said Marduk quickly. “The mouth cannot betray what the ears do not hear.” He began to hobble away, then paused. “A word of warning,” he said. “Your… friend. Striker. He came here two years ago. Since he has come… slaves have arrived, and they have gone to the place from which they go no more. But Striker--Striker remains. Even as others who speak of freedom and ill will towards the masters go.” He turned, and hobbled off.

Aethelstan watched him go, then turned towards his brother. “Well, what do you think?”

“He’s told me nothing that you and my heart have not,” answered the Graharz, smiling. “But unlike Marduk of Cthonique, I value my freedom more than my life. Even if they kill me here, they will not say the Graharz died toiling in these mines. I will make sure of that.”

“They probably wouldn’t say it if you did,” noted Aethelstan. “I rather doubt they care.”

“I’ll do what I can to change that,” said the Graharz, with a sad smile.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Down in the Darkness Deep--Part 19

“So, this is how you keep order in the mines?” muttered Cheimarrhus, as he stepped into the chamber.

Lord Nycetus glanced up from the pomegranate he was slicing open. “I do not recall asking for your presence, boy.”

Cheimarrhus snorted as he strode forward. “Boy! You think you may insult me such, may treat such, may put lowly worms such as that Abgar over me…”

“Yes,” said Nycetus quietly, scooping out some pomegranate seeds. “It is the best part of being commanding officer here. Schooling little wretches like yourself on how to handle yourselves if you wish to be taken seriously…”

“Little wretch!” snapped Cheimarrhus. “I am of the house of Bellerophontes! Ours is an ancient and honorable house--”

“That has had the misfortune, in you, to produce a miserable little wretch,” answered Nycetus, pausing to chew some pomegranate seeds.

“Do not interrupt me,” muttered Cheimarrhus, striding towards Nycetus’ desk. “I hold the advantage here now! My family may… have their issues with me, but when I bear the tale of your incompetence, they will…”

“What incompetence?” yawned Nycetus.

“This fighting and disorder occurring in that whorehouse you keep on this mine!” shouted Cheimarrhus, slamming his fists on the table. “That is what I mean! When I tell them this…”

“They will do nothing,” said Nyectus lifting his pomegranate. “You know--I get these from my family’s farm…”

Cheimarrhus stared at him, puzzled. “What…?”

“Hush, boy,” said Nycetus. “The adult is talking, and the child is, hopefully, learning.” He regarded the pomegranate for a moment. “An amazing fruit, you know. Healthful, vital. And we know this by its juice…” He tilted the rind to his face and then crushed it, allowing the red juice to flow into his mouth. Nycetus licked his lips, and set the fruit down. “Yes, its juice, which is red as blood is red.” He regarded the clearly baffled Cheimarrhus, who stared at his face streaked with red. “Like sustains like, after all. It is simple logic.” He smiled at the young man. “Just as it is simple logic that your family, after paying me to take you on here, after your disgrace, will not care a fig about your complaints regarding a few slaves scuffling among themselves.” Nycetus gave a subtle shrug. “After all, it is not a crying young girl… of high family, yet--complaining of being most cruelly used.” He peered forward, enjoying the exquisite pleasure of watching the young man squirm. “How old was she again? The number… twelve keeps appearing to my mind…”

“She said she was older!” said Cheimarrhus with a gulp.

“Of course,” muttered Nycetus sardonically. “They always do, don’t they, when the tale’s told again…”

“She--she wanted it!” sputtered Cheimarrhus glancing desperately at the door. “She… said she…”

“Yes, yes,” noted Nycetus, nodding. “That always seems to be the case as well.” He yawned and waved Cheimarrhus towards the door. “And now that you see that I know you all to well, boy, I ask that you trust that you know me not at all, and that you not try to second-guess me. Now--go.”

Cheimarrhus bit his lip and then turned, rapidly making his way to the door. He jerked it open and saw a handsome young man standing there, with the shackles of a slave. “Who are you?” he snapped.

“Ahh, that one goes by many names,” said Nycetus. “I believe in some areas, the slaves call him ‘Striker’.” He eyed the slave approvingly. “I prefer to call him ‘Darling’, myself.”

Cheimarrhus gave a disgusted shudder and stomped away. Striker watched him leave then slid into the room. “I have many things to tell you, my master,” said the slave, walking towards Nycetus.

“And are they good things?” asked the lord. “For if they are, I shall give you kisses and other sweet things.”

The slave kneeled at Nycetus feet. “Oh, very good things,” he said softly.

Nycetus stroked the slave’s cheek. “Darling boy,” he whispered. “Sweet darling boy…”

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Down in the Darkness Deep--Part 18

The Graharz awoke with a throbbing head to the whinny of horses. He opened his eyes and glanced around his present location, which quickly proved to be a very dark room… with horses in it. “Hello?”

“You’re up,” said a rather deep woman’s voice.

“I told you he’d be up soon,” said a quiet man’s voice.

“Yes,” said the woman, “but I wasn’t sure if that was your knowledge of illness and injury or that damned optimism of yours.”

“A bit of both,” noted the man.

“Well, props to you, Sir Crookback,” came his brother’s voice. “I was half certain his skull was broken, and I’ve known him long enough to know that’s damn near impossible.”

The Graharz’s eyes were adjusting to the dark, in what he was increasingly certain was a stable. “Aethelstan, why am I here?” he said quietly.

His brother gave a rather awkward cough. “Ahh, yes. It turns out some of the High Hill Folk who were being transported with us had a better grasp of the Dark Tongue than I thought. Which made me less than popular with them.” Aethelstan’s cheerful face popped into view. “There was a dispute, you heard it, and… well, you were you.” He gestured away. “Sir Crookback and his fair lady brought matters to an end, and… brought us here.”

The hunchback hobbled into view. “It isn’t much, I admit, but… it is something.” He peered down at the Graharz, and then offered him one misshapen hand. “Would you like help getting up, sir?”

The Graharz made an effort to rise, then gave a nod. “I think I would.” The hunchback reached down, and the Graharz felt a wiry, astonishingly strong hand loop under his shoulder.

“And up you go,” said the hunchback, lifting the Graharz to his feet.

Aethelstan came to his side, and helped steady him. “Any chance you could help?” he said to Ursula, who was sitting quietly in the corner.

“I will send you my good will,” she said, crossing her left arm before her, then pumping her right fist behind it. “There. Did you see that? Or should I do it again and send more good will?”

“You’ve a formidable lady,” muttered Aethelstan to the hunchback.

“I would not have any other,” he replied, moving away from the brothers towards Ursula.

“Well, we thank you your assistance,” said the Graharz.

“And I thank you for ending that go game,” said Ursula. “I find breaking skulls more entertaining than watching him win.”

The hunchback patted her arm. “You’re getting better.”

“Losing in more moves is still losing,” she muttered.

“We… should be betting back to our… cave,” muttered Aethelstan.

“I will take you there,” said the hunchback. A horse gave a loud whinny, and begin to buck. The hunchback limped over to it, and began to soothingly stroke its head. “Easy, Monoceros,” he said quietly.

The Graharz blinked. “Monoceros?”

“He is blind in one eye,” said the hunchback. “His former owner thought it… an amusing name. And so that is what the poor beast answers to.”

“Ahh,” said Aethelstan.

“I know what you are thinking,” said the hunchback. “That we are the same, he and I. And perhaps, we are, somewhat. But my mother…” He bit his lip. “I suspect you have heard some small thing of her, and perhaps even formed an opinion. But for me--she is the woman who gave me life. And gave me love. And gave me a name that the masters can never take from me.” He smiled and nodded to themselves. “They may call me what they like and I will answer to it. I’m not a fool, though it helps me if they think me one. But whatever foul name they choose to cry--in my heart, there’s only one name I truly call mine. The one my mother gave me. The one she whispered to me, when I was a small babe.”

“That seems a precious gift here,” said the Graharz.

“It is,” said the hunchback. “And it is a precious name, a kingly name.” He shook his head, letting loose a small laugh. “She named me ‘Marduk’. Me, small and twisted as I was and still am, that is the name I bear.”

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Down in the Darkness Deep--Part 17

Aethelstan glanced around the room, and then sighed. “This is the ugliest brothel that I have ever had the misfortune to enter,” he stated quietly to his brother. “Palace of Pleasure? More like the Hovel of Drunken Numbness…”

“It will serve,” said the Graharz.

“To achieve that named state?” noted Aethelstan. “Most assuredly.”

The Graharz leaned towards his brother, as Striker approached. “You know what I mean,” he said.

“No, I don’t,” declared Aethelstan forcefully. “As I told you and your little friend, I’m not going to throw away my life on any foolishness. As bad as it is, I’ve no intention of it getting worse.” He turned away from his brother. “You enjoy your companions--I’ll enjoy mine.” He watched the handsome slave approach the Graharz, and lead him towards a table where a small group was gathered. Then, with a sigh, Aethelstan made his way to a small chair that had been placed in a corner, and sat down. He glanced around, and waved at a rather plain young girl. “Get me a drink,” he said.

The girl nodded, and darted away. As Aethestan kept his eyes on her, she made her way towards a table conveniently located in the center of the “palace”. A woman was playing a game of go with the hunchback. Aethelstan was surprised that he of all people should have access to this place, much less company, but then the woman turned around, and he recognized her as the noseless, scarred keeper of this cut-rate whorehouse. Her gimlet eyes regarded him for a moment, then nodded at the girl, and began to pour a cup.

Aethelstan watched as the girl returned to his table and set the cup down. “Your drink,” she said a hurried whisper, her eyes fixed on him as he picked it up. “Do you want me to stay with you?” she blurted out as he took his first sip.

Aethelstan swallowed his drink, and looked at her for a moment. “How old are you, child?” he asked.

“Fifteen,” she said, much too quickly.

“I’d rather you didn’t,” said the Milesian. He pushed his cup towards her. “Though I wouldn’t mind you sharing this drink.” She stared at him, clearly rather surprised. “Don’t get too good an opinion of me,” he noted. “The wine you serve here is shit.”

She picked the cup quickly and took a long swallow, Aethelstan studying her horribly lean face as she gulped it down. “Thank you, sir,” she said, putting down the cup.

“I told you not to be impressed,” said Aethelstan. “It’s bad policy to disappoint your customers in this fashion.”

The girl looked so quickly at her feet that he actually felt ashamed. “Sorry, sir. Sorry.”

He shook his head. “It was… never mind. I just want to know… why is the Crookback in here?”

“Madame Ursula’s friend?” she said, a cheerful smile on her face. “He was born here, so Lord Nycetus lets him come and go as it pleases him.” She nodded. “And he and Ursula are friends.” Another, more emphatic nod. “They play go together. All the time.”

“Ahh.” Aethelstan considered this. “Well… I’m happy for them.”

“I will te--” began the girl, only to have a large man push her out of the way.

Aethelstan glanced up at him. “Look, sir, you seem to misunderstand the point of a whorehouse, so if I may enlighten…” He blinked.

Before him were two of the Tall Hill Folk, regarding him with rather unpleasant grins. “Baaaa,” said one of them, as he raised his fist.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Down in the Darkness Deep--Part 16

“So… that was all the Lady could send?” asked Barrant. “A single thread of spider web?”

“Yes,” said Eliazar, as he prepped the fire. “That is all.”

“Well… isn’t it’s snapping sort of inevitable?” suggested Barrant. “It was just a thread.”

Eleazar stood up and sighed. “Consider it a magical thread. A magical, symbolic thread.”

“Well, that’s not fair, is it?” declared the Goblin. “After all, the bandit doesn’t know that, now does he? All he knows is he’s been given one chance out of Hell, and it’s a single thread that could snap at any moment.”

“But it would have held if he’d had compassion for his fellow sufferers,” explained Eleazar.

The Goblin spread his hands. “He still didn’t know that.” Barrant bit his lip. “Honestly, the Lady seems cruel in that story. Dangling hope to a man only to snatch it away in an instant. Not the Mother Night I worship, at least.”

“It’s a parable,” muttered Eleazar. “It’s meant to tell us how to live our lives…”

“By what? Telling us to trust in magical, symbolic spider webs?” Barrant shook his head. “No. I’m sorry, but I just don’t see the point in the story.”

Eleazar considered it for a moment, and then sighed. “Never mind. It is… simply a matter of taste.”

“Oy,” came the loud voice of Abgar, as he trudged into the room. “Congratulations. The pair of you have done excellent work and thus qualify for a visit to the House of Pleasure.”

Barrant focused his eyes on his forge. “Not interested,” he said.

A rather smug grin came over Abgar’s face. “Somehow thought that would be the case.” He turned to Eleazar. “What about you?”

“Same as him,” said Eleazar, working the bellows.

“Ahh.” Abgar chuckled to himself, then nodded. “Right. Well, leave you two gentlemen to your work.” The legate walked off, his chuckle turning into a guffaw.

Barrant glanced at Eleazar. “Something tells me that’s the last offer we’re going to get to go to... that place.”

“Not something I’m sorry about,” said Eleazar. “Did you see the faces on those women?” He shook his head. “If I ever get back to the abbey, I’ll be able to paint damned souls from memory.”

“And here I’d always heard you monks were the randiest fellows under all the pious posing,” said Barrant.

“True for some, I suppose, but not all,” noted Eleazar. “Just as the snide gibes about Goblins are only true for some, for example…”

“Yes,” said Barrant, lifting a pair of tongs. “And I’m one of the ones it’s true about.”

Eleazar blinked. “Oh. Well. Understand, I hold nothing wrong with the pra…”

“Relax,” said Barrant, as he placed a bar of iron on the forge. “You’re not my type.”

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Down in the Darkness Deep--Part 15

Abgar threw the dice. “And… Lady’s Fingers! Damn it…” He passed them to Isengrim. “Your throw then.” The Ogre tossed the dice, which then showed a seven. Abgar snarled. “Damn your luck, Ogre.”

“Curse it all you want,” said Isengrim. “I’m still gathering the coin.” He collected the pot, and then placed his next bet. “So… I hear the old man has you watching the baby boy?”

Abgar nodded. “His nibs had one too many fits. Now I have to hold his hand to make sure he doesn’t hurt himself.”

Brunel scratched his head. “Personally, I think that would improve the little lord.” The others glanced at the cross-eyed Goblin. “Getting hurt. Preferably in some nasty way.”

“Well, he’s upper gentry, so I wouldn’t recommend it,” said Abgar.

“Well obviously, we wouldn’t hurt ourselves,” said Brunel, placing his coins in the pile. “More… he’d have something hit him in the head. All… accidental-like.”

Isengrim rolled his eyes as he threw the dice. “You worry me sometimes, Brunel.” He frowned. “Hmm… five.” He sighed and shook his head, preparing another throw.

“Brunel worries anyone with sense,” noted Abgar, his eyes riveted on Isengrim’s hand.

“Like a rock,” continued Brunel. “A really big rock.”

“Three,” muttered Isengrim, gathering the dice again.

“Think of it!” said Brunel. “A really big rock hitting him in the head! Wouldn’t that be great?”

“Depend on the size,” came out a small croaking voice. The guards turned to see the hunchback quietly cleaning in a corner.

“Oy, Creeper!” snapped Abgar. “How long you been standing there?”

The hunchback considered. “Well… I really don’t know, sirs, I really don’t.” He smiled at them. “Not long, sirs, though. No, just doing a little cleaning here, sirs. Cleaning, all quick and quiet. That’s what I was doing, sirs.”

Brunel got up quickly. “Listen you whoreson, did you hear me planning to hit Cheirmmarrhus in the head with a big rock…?”

The hunchback considered this, then shook his head. “No, good sir. Of course not.”

Brunel gave a satisfied nod. “Right. Right. Good.” He gave a menacing, cross-eyed squint. “Best be on your way then.”

The hunchback bowed, creeping towards the door out of the chamber all the while. “Of course, sir, of course, of course.”

Abgar turned to him. “And word of this better not reach Lord Nycetus.”

“Of course not, sir,” said the hunchback. “I would never dream of disturbing the great master with all of sirs various… business. Never, never.”

Abgar watched him dart out the door, then turned back to the game. “Brunel,” he declared softly, “why is your hand in the pot?”

Brunel released the coins in his hand. “I was… adding coins to it?” he suggested.

Outside, the hunchback released a deep breath, and shook his head, massaging it gently as he walked away.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Down in the Darkness Deep--Part 14

Aethelstan lay on the floor of the cave, coughing. He was all but certain he could feel the dust leaking out his mouth and nostrils with each cough. And as awful as that sensation was, it was still preferable to thinking about the ache in his arms. And his legs. And his back. And his neck. And…

Actually, the parts of him that weren’t aching would probably be a shorter list.

The Graharz glanced at his brother. “Would you like a drink?”

Aethelstan waited to catch his breath before turning to the Graharz. “So… I could… cough it out again?” He shook his head.

“Well, you have to get a drink eventually,” noted the Graharz.

“Yes,” muttered Aethelstan. “But I want it… when I can swallow…” He took a deep breath. “All right. I think… I think I’ve gotten… most of it out of me…” He raised a hand. “That drink?”

The Graharz pressed the small skin into his brother’s hands. “I’m wondering how you’re going to get through the next day of this.”

“A simple question,” said Aethelstan, finishing the drink. “I won’t. Just add my corpse to your load for extra weight.”

The Graharz stared at him, for a moment. “I believe they’d catch that,” he said at last.

Aethelstan managed to prop his aching, bruised body up against the cave wall, and regarded the Graharz for a long time. Then he started to laugh. “And now--now you go and remind me why it is I followed you out to all this in the first place.”

“I thought it was because you thought we’d win,” noted the Graharz.

“Solid defeats for the Northern League over nearly a decade, and you thought I saw victory around the corner,” laughed Aethelstan. “No, no, I was just being kind to you, brother. I knew we were fucked.”

The Graharz blinked. “Well, you could have told me that,” he said.

“And you’d have had the Band return home?” asked Aethelstan. His brother grimaced at that. “Thought so,” said Aethelstan. “Not that I blame you. Sutekh truly is an evil shit, who needs to be fought.”

“Lady guide our hands,” said the Graharz.

Aethelstan performed an Obeisant Gesticulation, then shut his eyes. “Especially… this latest bit of craziness. As the other option is working to death here. Something that one day’s mining has made intolerable to me.”

“Not just you,” said the Graharz smiling. “I’ve half a mind to just take up a cudgel, and lay into the guards until they cut me down.”

Aethelstan nodded. “A plan I can endorse. Why aren’t we doing it?”

“Because as you said,” replied the Graharz calmly, “King Sutekh is an evil shit who needs to be fought. Something we will have a hard time doing if we die in that manner.”

Aethelstan cracked his eyes open, and stared at his brother for awhile. “I hate it when your madness makes perfect sense on review. Did you know that?”

“I’ve guessed as much,” replied the Graharz.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Down in the Darkness Deep--Part 13

Nycetus yawned as Cheimarrhus entered his chambers, and put down the book he was reading. “So… did you get the smith to the smithy?”

The young Erl guard frowned. “He insisted I bring his stoker along,” he muttered. “It was quite… irritating.”

Nycetus turned to his underling, staring at him flatly. “But you did get them to the smithy, correct?”

Cheimarrhus turned around, his annoyance obvious. “Yes!” he snapped. “Your precious smith and his precious stoker are at their stations.”

“Good,” said Nycetus, returning to his book. “He is precious, you know. We’re lucky that a smith was being offered, especially one so skilled. If we’d gone any longer without one, I’d have had to hire a freeman. And that is pricey. And comes straight from the mine’s funds. So again--count your blessings.”

“It can’t be that pricey!” said Cheimarrhus, his tone sure, but his expression showing a nagging doubt emerging.

Nycetus flipped the page of his book. “Spoken like one who’s always lived off his parents’ purse,” he noted. He sighed. “Rest assured. It is.”

“But still--to give into these… scum on anything!” declared Cheirmarrhus passionately.

Nycetus folded the page of his book to keep his place, then set it down. “Giving into these scum, my dear lad, on certain small things is one thing that keeps this place running.” He smiled broadly. “The oppression of peoples is something of a science, Cheirmarrhus. Treat them too lightly, and, yes, they will take advantage of you. But press the heel too harshly, and you will make it so they will dare everything to dislodge that bothersome foot.”

“That’s when you press harder!” declared Cheirmarrhus. “Into the throat, if you have to!”

“How many throats?” asked Nycetus quietly.

Cheirmarrhus spoke without hesitation. “As many as is needed!”

Nycetus’ face remained calm. “And what if that sum is all?”

Cheirmarrhus actually did hesitate for that one. “Yes,” he said at last. “Yes… if that is the sum needed, then that is how many to kill.”

“And then who would mine, may I ask?” said Nycetus, his face expressionless.

“Well… they’re only slaves,” muttered Cheirmarrhus. “We’ll just buy more.”

Nycetus stared at him for a moment, then picked up his book. “You know, Cheirmarrhus, I have never been so happy that it is I and not you who is in charge here as I was just now.” He flipped the book open. “Not that you are wholly wrong, but you seem to fail to see that it is our job to attempt to avoid such drastic measures if possible.” His eyes returned to his book. “Which is why henceforth you are not to deal with the slaves without the assistance of Abgar. Understood?”

Cheirmarrhus scowled, bit his lip, and then gave a nod.

“Excellent,” said Nycetus. “Then leave my presence.”

Cheirmarrhus gave a rather stunted bow, and whirled around, leaving the room.

Nycetus went back to reading The Prince of Dead Leaves, and musing over the many ways of oppression.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Down in the Darkness Deep--Part 12

“So… the Northern League has suffered another defeat,” said Striker quietly.

Aethelstan and the Graharz looked at each other worriedly. “What would make you say…?” began Aethelstan.

“Even in the Cthonique mines we hear of the wars,” noted the handsome slave. “And… well, one can tell quite a lot about the slaves they send us. When a lot of Milesians come…” Striker shrugged. “Well… the conclusion is obvious.”

The Graharz glanced away. “It has not gone well, no. But unlike some, I do not think all is lost. The League will fight on until it is no more. And when it passes, something else will take up the fight. Sutekh cannot rule forever. No matter what he imagines.”

Striker gestured to a guard walking out of the tunnel, escorting a Goblin and an Erl. “I would be very careful saying such things here. They can… provoke reaction…”

“You there!” shouted the guard, pointing at a short young Erl. “Up! Now!” The Erl rose, revealing himself to be little more than a boy. The guard gestured with his lash. “What was that in your hands, slave? Was that a weapon?”

The boy shivered. “No… no, sir. It… it wasn’t anything…”

“Are you saying that I am a liar, slave?” snapped the guard. “Or perhaps that my wits are imperfect?”

“No--no, sir!” said the boy, shaking his head. “Of course not.”

The guard prodded him with the lash. “So what was in your hands?”

“I… it… it was a stick, sir,” said the boy.

The guard nodded. “A stick. That’s a far cry from nothing…”

“It was… it was just a little stick,” continued the boy.

“But not nothing,” said the guard, fiddling idly with his lash “Now… why did you have a stick?” Aethelstan glanced over at his brother, who he noted had picked up a stone.

“I… I was playing with it, sir,” said the boy.

The guard’s eyes went wide in fury. “Playing with it? Playing with it? You tell me such nonsense, and expect me to believe it? Playing with it?”

“I was bored, sir,” peeped the boy.

The Goblin coughed. “I’ve known children to do such things when…”

“You do not speak on this,” snapped the guard, glaring at the man. He turned back to the child. “And you do NOT lie to me,” he snarled, raising his lash. “I will show you what happens when you do! Oh, I will sh--”

And then the hunchback bumped into him, spilling his stew onto the man‘s uniform.

“Oh, sorry, great sir, so sorry!” babbled the hunchback. “Sorry! A thousand apologies! So sorry for my clumsiness! So sorry!” He began to nervously, try to clean the guard. “Apologies! So sorry!”

The guard sputtered for a moment, and then began to rain blows down on the hunchback. “Toad! Worm! Whoreson! You miserable… creeping… whoreson!”

“Sorry, sorry, so so sorry, great sir!” continued the hunchback, as the lash struck him again and again.

“Be more careful next time,” snapped the guard, recovering himself and returning to lead the other two slaves out of the tunnel.

Striker took a relieved breath. “And that was a fairly mild case,” he noted.

“Thank goodness,” said the Graharz, releasing the stone from his grip.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Down in the Darkness Deep--Part 11

Barrant Burr chewed his barley stew, swallowed, and then got to work on the crust of bread, they’d given him as a bowl. Eliazar sighed as he watched him. “Tell me,” said the Erl quietly, “did you ever hear the Hierophant Lamiel’s theory of acquired traits?”

The Goblin took a swallow of bread, and looked Eliazr in the face. “Not that I recall. I did hear Lamiel Bramblebrush’s theory of paying his debts--which ran that he’d do it in his own sweet time--but I doubt they were the same person. Unless Bramblebrush had a history in the religious orders he never told me about. Which I doubt.”

Eliazar cracked a smile. “Not unless he was over five hundred years old,” he noted.

Barrant considered it. “That I also doubt.”

“He felt that the Nightfolk often acquired traits based on their circumstances, hence our… as he put it, ‘glorious and astonishing diversity of forms’,” said Eliazar. “Watching you eat put me in mind of it. Seeing as you’ve apparently acquired a cast-iron stomach.”

“Chuckle to yourself as much as you like, Erl,” said Barrant. “Judged in comparison to my recent meals, this is a veritable feast, and one I recommend you partake of.”

Eliazar tipped his own crust of bread to his mouth. “You know, my prior used to say that when that Milesian corruption started to supplant the proper name of Alvar, it was the sign of great and terrible things befalling the Children of Night.”

Barrant stared at Eliazar with frank cynicism. “You were a monk?”

“A member of the Order of the Barefoot Walkers in the Abbey of the Divine Mother Eternally Victorious,” said Eliazar. “Before King Sutekh dissolved the order, at least.”

“Which ones are you?” asked Barrant. “The ones who didn’t hand over the books, or the ones who protested his dissolving the ones who didn’t hand over the books?”

“The ones that protested his dissolving the ones who protested,” said Eliazar. “And hid books for the ones that didn’t hand over the books. And declared that his wars were unjust.”

“I knew the name sounded familiar,” said Barrant. “You’re a Hardheel.” He gave a delighted laugh and slapped his knee. “I’m pleased to meet someone as mad as myself.”

“Oh, I’m mad even by the standards of the Barefoot Walkers,” said Eliazar. “Instead of seeking to join another holy order, I took up arms against the King of Kings.” He shrugged. “With the results being… obvious.”

“Then I salute you as comrade,” declared Barrant. “After all--I’m here as well, aren’t I?”

The pair were sharing a laugh at that when the call rang out. “Oy! Goblin!” Barrant turned to see a rather young Erl wearing an immaculate uniform and a scowl on his face walking towards him. “Are you Barrant Burr, smith and armorer?”

“I have that dubious honor,” said Barrant.

The guard nodded. “You are to come up above and quarter in the smithy. In preparation of your new duties.”

Barrant scowled. “I suppose I’ll be making chains and the like?”

“Amongst other things, yes,” said the guard.

“And I have no option to refuse?” continued the Goblin.

“As you are the property of the mines, no,” answered the guard. He considered it a moment. “Or rather--you do, and then we would operate our option to cause you hideous suffering.”

Barrant glanced at Eliazar. “Even I would take this offer,” said the former monk quietly.

The Goblin turned back to the guard. “Tell me, does the smithy have a stoker?”

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Down in the Darkness Deep--Part 10

“Soup, soup, delicious soup!” said the hunchback, limping into view, a large pot held underneath one over-sized misshapen arm.

Aethelstan glanced at his brother. “Do you think the slop is going to be any more appetizing than the thing carrying it?” The Graharz remained silent, merely looking over the crowd of slaves huddled in the dark corners of the tunnel. Aethelstan gave a snort. “Ahh. So that’s how it’s going to be, eh? You look all gloomy, and pensive, while I babble on?”

“Isn’t that how it’s always been?” said the Graharz, quietly.

Aethelstan seemed about to comment on that, but then just began to laugh. “Well, I’ll say this, brother--we will keep each other amused through all this.”

“However long it lasts,” replied the Graharz.

A loud cough came from their right. The two Milesians turned to see a tall, pale Erl standing there, wearing the simple clothing and chains of a slave. “Hello, friends,” he said, raising one well-muscled arm.

Aethelstan and his brother stared at the Erl with suspicion. “We were unaware that we even knew you, much less that we were friends,” said the Graharz.

A smile spread on the Erl’s handsome face, as he sat down next to them. “I like to consider all who toil with me here friends, until they prove otherwise.” He looked at them levelly. “And friends can be very, very useful here. The Cthonique mines are a dangerous place. And not all the dangers are obvious.”

“And what do you get from helping us?” asked Aethelstan.

“The satisfaction of spitting in the eye of the masters who keep me here,” said the Erl. He shrugged. “A small enough thing, but here, every little victory is worth more than one might think…”

The Graharz and Aethelstan looked at each other, and then nodded. “Very well,” said the Graharz. “We will take up your offer…”

The Erl frowned. “Those of us born into slavery are not granted names,” he said softly. “We are simply… called things. But most call me ‘Striker’, for the crime that sent me here.” The Milesians stared at him, clearly puzzled. “I was a slave on a Magnate’s farm, but I struck my master after he struck me. That’s usually death, but… my master likes to mix profit with punishment. And so he sent me here.”

“You sound regretful,” noted Athelstan.

“This is still death,” said Striker. “It is simply slower. And more painful.”

The Graharz smiled despite himself. “Death for some, perhaps.”

Striker sighed. “Be careful when you say such things. The masters have ways to hear them here.” Aethelstan gestured across the way to the hunchback, busy ladling some soup into a bit of bread and serving it to some slaves. Striker shook his head. “Oh, Crookback’s harmless, with wits as misshapen as the rest of him. The greatest thing to fear is that if you said something before him he might say it before a guard not realizing he was doing you ill. And even then, he’d have to remember it.”

“Crookback?” asked Aethelstan.

“Kinder than what the masters call him,” said Striker. “They have quite a few names, all unpleasant.”