An appeal for help
Waving Bardic back a little, Edric dismounted and stooped to raise the elder from her knees.
“Don’t be afraid: speak: what is troubling you?”
“Oh my lord! Is it true that the lords are leaving the castle?”
“Grant us a boon, my lord! Many of our men-folk were sent to work in the Baron’s mine! Free them, we beg you!”
Bardic’s ears had pricked up at the mention of the mine. He’d let it slip from his mind in the hurly-burly of the past couple of days. But true: they would be passing the fork in the road north, leading to the mine. The silver mine. And while it was true that his saddlebag was pleasantly weighted with about twenty pounds of silver bar, there was room for a little more.
Edric rubbed his beard thoughtfully, but shook his head:
“The only good news I can give you is that in due course a new and no doubt just lord will be appointed to rule. You can ask for an investigation into any alleged improprieties…”
Howls of anguish drowned any further words. The villagers beat their breasts and sobbed:
“Our men were convicted unjustly by the Baron and by the time we have any hearing from a new lord they will be dead! For Mitra’s sake we ask you to show mercy!”
“Edric, we should look into this,” Bardic rumbled. “People worked to death in a silver mine for no just cause should mean something to you, by Crom!”
Who’s working for whom?
The caravan rolled on, slow but steady. The children mostly walked, picking up kindling and dried horse dung. Older children and women cut branches or retrieved heavier deadfalls. At the head of the column, Vorel argued to be let go with the others: but Amur Khan was adamant that the agreement meant no release: the ranger was their guide at all times.
“I should think we could get Kuruk: he knows the way we work and the value of dead enemies,” Bardic suggested. And indeed the little Hyrkanian readily joined them without caviling or haggling. Hod rode near Edric, since his mission appeared to still be “protect the Friar” for five silvers a day. But Morath and Celo wanted even more money to bother with the mine, let alone traipse all the way through Cimmeria. Once again Edric reached into his dwindling supply and offer 25 gold apiece to stick with the expedition, with a codicil that any major engagement would require further negotiations! As for Bardic, he understood his homespun-clad companion to be lending his considerable strength as a Mitran and employer of three mercenaries to Bardic’s own problem, in consideration of guidance and protection across Cimmeria. Expenses would be covered – each perhaps with a mutually exclusive mental caveat regarding loss of horses – and at last, the Cimmerian, the Friar, his three mercenaries, and the Hyrkanian jogged off north-west in good order and good cheer.
A private arrangement
Explaining to Edric that he needed to arrange exact contingencies with the scouts, Bardic took Morath and Celo aside.
“There could be good pickings. Strong rooms, or loot, or what have you. Let’s arrange this in a business-like fashion. If I see the chance, I’ll gather riches and you cover me. Likewise if I need to distract Edric – who doesn’t need to know about this – then you gather the goods. We share later. Deal?”
Agents of stealth
Three hours remained of the long summer day by the time they arrived at the familiar hollow near the mine head. After a few minutes planning based on the intelligence gleaned from the Hyrkanians, Edric instructed Morath and Celo to act as a stealthy vanguard. Their task was to advance to the mine and lurk in cover so that if the main body was attacked, the scouts would be in place ready to strike.
After about ten minutes’ leopard-crawling across the clear-felled slope leading up to the mine, Celo realized that Morath seemed to be veering off course. He signaled the Zamorian urgently: but the latter curtly gestured that he knew his own business best. Sighing, Celo continued along the designated path, threaded through broadly-dispersed tailings, and to the great notch in the slope that marked the mine.
It seemed very quiet. From far away and deep below, Celo could hear sounds he guessed were associated with a working mine. Sliding to the decline, he studied the timber buildings along each side, built into the hill and fashioned of sturdy logs caulked with mud. Three tiers or galleries there were. In all the structures, he could hear only one human conversation. He stole closer.
Meanwhile by working his way around and uphill, Morath had arrived in fair view of the “mansion” Amur Khan had described as the residence of the mine manager. It was the long, low, log-built structure built below the hilltop and into the hill. Morath was struck, as he had been the previous time he had scouted, by its air of incognito: a flinching from easy recognition, suggestive of something to conceal.
Working his way a little closer, he could make out faint sounds he could associate with an evening meal. He could even make out what sounded like a fountain. Dogs sounded a warning. Morath waited: and was rewarded by seeing a woman open the door to the place, and hurl out some food scraps. Two large dogs raced around from the far end somewhere, and wolfed the meat down, crunching up bones with powerful jaws. Morath eased back a little, and began working his way up around so as to descend onto the structure’s roof.
Celo listened, pressed up against what seemed to be living quarters on the second gallery. A man and woman argued, in a married-couple way, about whether they should just cut and leave. Someone named “Tuncarvit” would make the man rue his decision if he just made off: that would be the Abrum Tunsomething the Hyrkanians had listed as mine boss, Celo thought.
Then two children burst out of a nearby doorway, and immediately saw the lurking rogue! Cries of “Tommyknocker! Tommyknocker!” followed Celo as he fled and hid in shadows out of child’s-eye range.
Proper Authorization Required
Edric peered down the tunnel, or shaft, dubiously. It brought back unhappy memories of ghoul-haunted ruins and dead comrades. But Bardic’s torch was burning and the horses seemed calm. Taking a deep breath he urged his mount down. At least it was broad and tall enough that his small party – Bardic, Hod and Kuruk besides himself – could ride down easily.
After some few minutes, a startled brutish-looking overseer was the first to challenge them, and virtually the first creature they had seen, though at one point Bardic had stopped to drip wine into the mouths of two pitiful wretches near death’s door. Edric’s assurance assuaged the man’s challenge and he pointed them further down, to where Abrum Tuncarvit was checking a new stope.
Abrum proved to be a very burly man covered in grey grime and up to his elbows in practical work, directing skilled miners in new cuts and drifts. He also proved straightforward, plain-spoken and stubborn:
“So you want me to release some workers? Well, I don’t see how that’s possible, without proper authorization. Look, I’m under pressure as it is, to keep production up. Come up to my office: I’ll show you the production schedules, and you show me how I can release anyone!”
Alert for treachery, they returned to the surface and followed Abrum along the lower gallery of log buildings to his office. It was cramped and quite dirty with transferred mud and dust of the workings. Hod and Kuruk remained outside while Edric and Bardic dismounted and occupied the simple stools in the office.
Studying Abrum’s parchment ledgers, Edric made some quick mental calculations. Though he didn’t know anything about silver production, the amounts coming out seemed not to quite fit with what he had seen in the wagon. He kept this to himself, and learned that proper authorization would come from Grausen Defaugh, royal mine manager and occupant of the upper “lodge.” Abrum’s parting advice was:
“I work late, and I’ve got a lot of paper work to get through. Come back as late as you like, and I’ll probably be here.”
The Villain of the piece
Morath crouched in the darkness above the entry of the lodge-mansion, as the Friar bluffed his way inside. It was clear that the major-domo had mistaken him for one of the Damson Friars. Morath signaled to Celo, Kuruk and Hod, who followed Edric and Bardic up at a respectful distance. Celo saw him, and ghosted closer as the door swung shut.
Thunder gathered on Bardic’s brow as he noted the submissive demeanor of the slave-girls and the bruises on the nearest one’s arms. He also noticed that they were wearing very little in the way of clothing. Grausen Defaugh, sight unseen, shaped up to be a man that liked giving pain to women; and his major-domo seemed just such another cruel villain. Bardic marked him: the fellow had also spoken slightingly of Cimmerians: if the opportunity arose vengeance would be sudden and definite!
For the meantime, at the major-domo’s insistence, Bardic divested himself of any sword or axe, and followed the Friar into a large drawing-room or audience-chamber. A fountain – of all things – was the centerpiece. Comfortable forms ran along most of the walls. The only other exit was at the opposite end, where two completely black men stood on guard, each bearing a naked scimitar. At a clap of the major-domo’s hands two more girls, one bearing wine and one grapes and with barely a girdle between them, entered from the unseen far chamber.
“Grausen Defaugh is engaged in his post-prandial… nap, at present,” the major-domo said tactfully. “Make yourselves comfortable, and the wenches will see to your needs… or it will be the worse for them!”
The pair sat against the solid outer wall, eyeing the black guards with interest. As far as Bardic could recall these were the first entirely black men he had seen: much darker than the deep-chestnut of some Stygians. Nonetheless a goblet of wine did manage to make its way into his hand. Time passed.
At length, a middle-aged man, bulky with surplus fat and rich clothing, entered between the guards. He took a few paces towards them:
“Greetings… so you are visitors from the castle?”
“We have just come from the castle, yes.”
Grausen Defaugh stroked one of his moustaches and considered his two visitors with eyes that glittered shrewdly between fat lids.
Meanwhile, Celo stole cautiously through the outer doorway. Purely by the light and fountain noise, he could guess which way the pair had been taken. Behind him, like a dark and hungry wolf, Morath eased the door open and stepped through as well.
Mitra’s mission becomes Critical
So shouting, Grausen stepped back towards the safety of his own chambers. The four other men in the room flung themselves into action, while the four wenches squeaked and shrank back.
As Grausen retreated, Edric lunged up and recklessly plunged towards him, readying his staff to use as a spear. But a devastating sweep from a scimitar leveled him, guts seeping out from his split chain shirt.
Bardic drew his poniard, easily evaded the slashing scimitars, closed, and thrust the weapon repeatedly into the guard’s naked breast.
Outside on the darkening fore-slope, Kuruk and Hod heard the cry and reacted swiftly: Kuruk kicked his pony into a gallop and straight through the open doorway. Hod hurried as well, but sensibly seized up Bardic’s great-sword.
Celo and Morath dashed across the chamber and around the fountain.
“Edric’s down – help him!” Morath called, knowing that Celo had some simple leech-craft. Morath lined his targets up, but before he could bring his sword to bear, Kuruk sent two arrows into the wounded guard, while Bardic took a cut on his armor and finished the remaining guard.
Celo ran to Edric, checked momentarily in shock at the terrible wound, and began to stanch the blood-flow as best he could. Hastening over to Celo, Morath clawed the last remaining healing potion form his kit and passed it over. Gently, Celo urged the potion down the dying Friar’s throat: to good effect! Edric regained consciousness, and looked about.
“Where’s Defaugh? The boss?”
“Kuruk – no kill boss! We need him alive!” Morath bellowed. “Bardic – you need any help?”
Bardic had already gone hunting! Hard on the heels – or hooves – of Kuruk’s pony, he plunged through a richly-appointed chamber and looked about wildly. Kuruk had already put arrows into Defaugh but having near-killed him had seized the vile wretch. They were not the only occupants. Some more girls, near enough to naked as made no difference, were attempting to hide behind furniture, furs, or small bits of silk. One, perhaps more alert than the others, pointed to another doorway. Bardic took the hint and sped to make his kill.
Proper Authorization Received
Ignoring the bloodstains on the parchment, Abrum studied it, ticked off the 15 or so names, and handed it back.
“Fetch one of my overseers, and have the workers released.”
When Bardic and Celo had gone, Edric turned to Abrum again. “You know, you should take a look at these ledgers I recovered from Defaugh. Dual ledgers: twins to yours, but with some differences.”
Abrum’s eyes rain through the lines of the ledger, and his eyebrows rose. Not entirely in surprise: more “I didn’t realize the skim was that much.” The noise of many prisoners being released disturbed the pair. Lacking any ability to read, the overseer, Bardic and Celo had released all the enslaved workers.
The expedition prepared to leave. It took some time: nine nubile wenches, muffled with furs against the cold of the summer night, now walked alongside Bardic. Nearby, a mutinous mob of miners gathered to argue out the best course for their future, with no workers to do the basic digging and shifting.
“I suppose I’ll be moving on, provided you can assure me you won’t attack me or my woman and children,” Abrum said regretfully. “We had a good operation here. Happen the King of Aquilonia will pay for my services.”
“You should keep the mine working!” Edric encouraged him. Though fatigued from the near-miss from Death’s scythe, the Friar was still trying to do right by King Luchistheyrn.
“Can’t, not unless you have a royal seal to create a new charter,” Abrum retorted. “With no mine manager, no workers, and no warrant to pay the miners, it’s closed as of now.”
What to do with wenches
“We can send them south,” Edric decided. But Bardic’s ideas were in the opposite direction.
“No, we’ll bring them with us.”
“Bardic, you’re thinking with your penis! Bardic’s Penis, stop speaking for Bardic, and let me talk to him. Now Bardic, you can’t seriously expect us to take them all the way through Cimmeria! They can live in the castle until someone in authority turns up. Send them south.”
“Can’t – first, they can’t fend for themselves. Second, lots of those freed men are bad types, and I’ll not let girls under my protection just wander at any man’s mercy. They go north.”
“We can decide once we catch up with the Hyrkanians, let’s at least agree on that.”
“Done. But you’ll see I’m right.”
And indeed Bardic was right. By the time they had their horses returned by Kuruk, Celo and Hod, and ensured all the girls could at least stay in the saddle, most of a day had gone; and all the time the Hyrkanians were travelling further north. By the time they caught up with the caravan, they were so far through the remainder of Gunderland that Edric conceded – with poor grace – and the girls remained, to the curiosity of the Hyrkanian children and the enragement of the Hyrkanian women who would now have to supervise nine more unskilled laborers. What the Hyrkanian men thought, they kept to themselves.
It was the same day when, having made their way through lightly forested, steep-sided valleys that looked exactly the same as the lightly forested, steep-sided valleys of the previous day that Bardic paused and breathed deep: and cried in a loud voice:
“We’re in Cimmeria!”