Still deciding which fiction project to pursue in the new year. In the meantime, this is the latest from my post-apocalyptic fantasy piece. Hope you enjoy.
The mine’s entrance was little more than a low, round cave lit by flaming torches. Inside, it turned into a narrow passage that ran roughly fifty paces before opening abruptly to a second, larger cavern. From there, three more passages led to different areas of the mine; the North, West and South shafts that dove into the gnarls of cramped shafts, caves and grottos carved in the mountain’s heart. A forth opening next to the main entrance led to the Chief’s Grotto. Guarded night and day by a pair of heavily armored brutes from his warband, no one went into Largash Goretusk’s presence unless specifically summoned. Anyone who tried otherwise was butchered on the spot.
Addas had only met the Chief once, the day Chalk presented him to the clan as his drudge and apprentice scavenger. Addas remembered the orc’s sinuous bulk, how he’d leaned forward in his throne of bones and fur, a huge hand adorned with iron rings closing around his throat, yanking him closer. Goretusk had looked him over and shook his head, laid a blade on Addas’ throat. Addas remembered hard, bloodshot eyes narrowing in a flat slab of a face, yellowed lower tusks curling up in a snarl, the stench of cruelty. The sinews in the Chief’s arm had coiled and Addas squealed, certain he was about to die, and pissed himself. Goretusk’s nose had wrinkled in scorn and he started to laugh. He threw him back at Chalk’s feet. “You want this piglet, you feed him. He stays useful and stays out of my way or he gets slit. Clear?”
Chalk had nodded without a word, cuffed Addas on the head and dragged him out. The memory still made his stomach knot.
Stretches of each section in the mine were claimed by different orc families, yards of dank burrows guarded fiercely, bitter rivalries measured in inches. Scorch the world, orcs still found a way to fight over territory. Stronger, bigger families lumped near the surface, outcasts and the weak were shoved deeper where the air was foul and the light dingy. Addas guessed hundreds of greenskins, orc and goblin, lived like pale blind maggots in the deep dark below the main shafts. He only saw those he scraped past in a tunnel, gaunt faces illuminated by guttering, stinky torchlight. The rest he calculated by feel, and smell.
Except for a council in Chief Goretusk’s grotto, the central cavern was the only place one could see more than a dozen orcs at a time. Before the Fall, a gathering like it wouldn’t be worth a pitcher of spit, more riot than anything else, but now it was the height of greenskin endeavor. It was the Swap, the clan’s one and only marketplace. More than that, the Swap was the Black Sand’s lifeblood and lifeline; their source of food, goods, news, and their only contact with those outside their walls.
Addas hesitated, picked his path before plunging in. He wanted to get through as fast as he could, hide in the crowd’s convulsion and noise. The wide cavern floor was a maze of crude stalls, threadbare awnings, and vendors’ tables. Most were iron-mongers offering weapons, tools, or armor, but several advertized rough-stitched hides, mangy fur capes, even bowls of lumpy gruel and sticks of greasy mystery meat. Dozens of small braziers spit and flickered, emitting more oily soot than warmth, their brume mixing with the roar of orcs arguing, bartering, bellowing in their guttural tongue. Smaller, faster goblins scurried through the sea of burly bowed legs carrying goods, messages, picking pockets… Addas counted as many brawls going on as trades. A few worn paths wove through the mess to the far side of the cavern where the main shafts were. Addas stepped into the flow of chaos and despite the clamor, immediately sensed a strange pressure in the air. Thicker than smoke it was, and ready to pop.
Another dozen steps, Addas saw the reason.
Stunties. A dozen of the little bastards.
A veritable troop of Dwarves stood guard over a string of ponies and pack-mules on the north side of the cavern. The track-makers.
Twenty paces of open space separated the Dwarves from the greenskin mob, and Addas felt the ancient grudge between the two races seething around the cavern. Even felt it stir in his bones. If it weren’t for the Treaty, there’d be blood soaking the dirt right now, sure as shit stinks. Still, desperate times need desperate measures; however surly, both sides were abiding by the terms.
Tired and hungry as he was, Addas took the long way to the hole that led to his burrow. Wasn’t every day he saw outsiders in Black Sands territory, let alone Dwarves.
Their usual stoutness long since burned off, the Stunties were gaunt and looking serious as a knife in the belly. Their armor was black, gleaming and smooth like it was new from a forge. Every Dwarf held a naked blade at their side, casual but ready. Addas thought about his one good javelin head and wondered what it would take to get his hands on steel like theirs. More than he could scrape together in a lifetime, probably.
Of all the races, the Dwarven folk had weathered the Fall the best. It was said their Gods warned them by rune and seer, that they sealed the massive doors to their underground cities and feasted until the fires burned out. Some even whispered a Dwarf God or two survived, hidden among their people, and the Stunties were scheming to take over what remained with the help of their housebroken deities. Addas figured that was a steaming pile of envy and rot-gut hooch talking.
The Gods were dead; ashes and bone scattered across the Three Worlds.
Besides, who in their right mind wanted to reign over a scorned and broken land?
The Dwarf leader was an odd one, easy to pick out. Taller than average, maybe up to Addas’ chest, he radiated authority like a white-hot coal. With flaming red hair to match his attitude, and sharp green eyes, the strangest thing was the thorn tattoos coiling across his clean-shaven cheeks. Addas had never heard of a beardless Stuntie. Must be some kind of Fall sickness, he thought. Or a punishment.
Big Red had a wicked double-head axe head standing upside down beside his right leg. His fingers caressed the handle like he was itching to snatch it up and put it to use. Addas spied runes on the broad steel, chunky marks marching below the edge. Chalk used to boast he could cipher Dwarvish scratchings, and a bit of Elvish too. Addas never learned the whole truth of that claim, but the old bastard did live long enough to beat a few runes into his head. Which was why Addas started when he saw the icon on the buckler that rested against Big Red’s other leg.
An anvil: a Dunak dwarf from the White River. A long way from home, these Dwarves were. He wondered what, by Gruumsh’s Shattered Balls, would bring them all the way here in the dead of winter?
Big Red caught Addas staring and gazed back. The look was more curious than hostile, but Addas turned away quickly anyway. If the Chief caught wind of him eyeballing visitors, he’d get a kicking, no doubt. Lifting the sledge like a shield, he went straight into the South hole. Stunties were trouble, and he had enough of that in his life already.
Deeper in the mine, each turn, each drop, the stale air grew heavier, rank with damp, mold and piss. Caves yawned off the sides of the main tunnel, wretched dens filled with squabbling orc families. In an especially wide stretch, the rock walls were notched floor to ceiling with sleeping cubbies like human tombs, studded with guttering torches and rude lanterns.
Stepping aside for oncoming traffic, none of the orcs greeted him or gave a second glance once they saw he wasn’t carrying food. Addas’ place in the pecking order long since fixed, the piss-soaked sledge warded off any other problems as well. Everybody had their own stink to worry over.
The shaft sloped down and down again, deep into a new section of the mine, ending in a tiny chamber bristling with limestone devil spikes. Addas twisted through them, ducked into a partially collapsed tunnel on the far side, then slid down a length of loose shale to his burrow.
Snat had found it for him the day after Chalk went in the dirt. Little more than a stone ledge with a ratty hide for a curtain, the best thing about it was it difficult for full-size orcs to reach.
Addas misered his lamp oil worse than a Dwarf with silver. Deep and isolated, the place was syrupy dark when you snuffed out your wick, thick and heavy enough to choke you if you thought on it too hard. But the air was cool – a touch cleaner somehow. Sometimes as he fell asleep, Addas even heard the sound of rushing water echoing in the hard black. There was a tall fissure in the granite face a few paces past his shelf. He studied it once with a candle stub, saw that he might squeeze through in a pinch, but never found the time or inclination to explore further.
Lighting a battered tin lamp, Addas began the careful removal of his armor and gear. First he set the cleaver, javelin and skinning flint aside. Next his belt, the pack with its carefully wrapped horn, and his vest.
Finally, he began to undo his mail shirt.
He winced as he tugged the buckles open, the pain shooting across his chest, ribs. The dried blood pulled his skin, the gash weeping as he pulled it off. The undershirt was ruined, little more than a rag to start. Definitely one now. He’d have to scrub the mail straight away if he wanted to keep the iron rings from rusting any more.
Get to it now, he heard Chalk say. Fight don’t let you sharpen your blade once it starts.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah. I know,” Addas murmured. “‘Take care of your gear and your gear will take care of you.'”
It took several painful tries, but eventually he held up the mail shirt and studied it in the feeble light. Thin, dull brown with age and use, the front glistened where the rings were severed and still sticky with blood. Odd loops of copper or tin, even leather cord, betrayed half-a-dozen older repairs. A pair of kidney-low holes in the back must have done in the original owner. Mark of a hellspike, Chalk claimed, Hades’ minions known for being backstabbing little feckers.
Chalk had bequeathed it to Addas the morning he died. The old tracker could have paid off a debt, the Chief’s boys already gathering like vultures to divvy up his gear. But Chalk passed it to Addas on the sly, the warty old brute bubbly-blood whispering he should tuck it out of sight.
Worth more’n you, runt. Smith could melt a dagger or three out of it.
He’d grabbed Addas’ shirt. No one gives a runny shit to saving your skin. You’ll have work harder, smarter. Earn the right to keep it. Make yourself valuable so they think twice before they gut you. Gotta be worth more alive than dead.
Addas set the mail shirt down, emotions tearing him two ways. Cruel old bastard was worm food – good riddance. But what did it mean when a ghost’s scorn was the only kindness left, and letting go looked easier than going on?
No answer came to mind. Even Chalk was uncharacteristically silent.
“Might as well pray to the dead gods,” Addas growled, and jabbed his fingers in the wound. He probed his side, ignoring the pain that seared along his ribs. He cuffed back the welling in his eyes.
“Less think – more work.” That had been Chalk’s solution for near everything.
The edges of the gash were raw, and Addas could see the purple-brown bruising starting to spread. At least the bleeding had stopped. He looked at the rent in the shirt again. “I’m gonna get gouged in more ways than one, getting patched up here.”
But there was no choice at all, not if he wanted to stay alive. Poor armor is always better than none.
Setting the mail shirt aside, he picked up his vest, his pouch, belt, water skin, and skinning dagger one by one, and inspected them in turn. Only when he had gone over every inch, edge, and seam and was satisfied at their condition, did he allow himself to look at the horn.
Carefully, quietly, he fished a slab of jerky from under his bed mat, tore off a hunk, then began to unwrap the rags.
“Ooooh…izzat what I think it is?”
There was a scrunch of gravel and flap of cloth as a small goblin dropped into his burrow.
Addas spun, reflexively jabbing with the horn. “Feck me, Snat. Stop the sneaky devious. I’m gonna shank you one of these days.”
The goblin grinned. “Sneaky devious is what I am.” He yanked the horn out of Addas’ hand. “Besides, shank me, and who’d flip your smuggle?”
Addas clawed for the horn but Snat clambered up on his bed shelf and began earnestly scrutinizing the horn up and down its length.
The goblin was typical of his race; small, about the size of an older human child with pale green skin and a wiry body. Everything about him looked sharp: his cheeks, pointed chin with an arrowhead goatee, hooked nose, pointed ears. Even his bright amber eyes were narrow and slanted. Snat, whose full name was Gezwill Snatterwaul of the Slowshiv clan, was like a cutpurse dagger: short, ugly, and sharp. And occasionally very handy to have around.
He’d been a shaman’s apprentice before the Fall, one of Bargrivyek’s faithful, ironically devoted to peace between the ever-quarrelling goblin tribes. But the treacherous gods being dead, and devotees of any stripe killed out of spite, Snat hid his former vocation. Disavowed it, in fact. Now, instead of spells, poisons, and potions, Snat lugged a goatskin bundle of hand tools. Addas didn’t know how he did it, but the goblin had everything in there from a maul to lock picks. Snat claimed there was nothing mechanical he couldn’t patch up or make better. For a price.
Truth be told, in Addas’ experience, he was annoyingly right. If it weren’t for the little goblin’s expertise, he’d be scrounging beyond the walls with nothing but rags and a wood cudgel.
There was nothing Snat couldn’t find either, seeing as he was the boss of the Nick; the goblin black market. Given enough time and money, if it still existed in this wreck of a world, he could get it. “Keep the silver coming, I’ll find you a bridge to the broken moon,” was his favorite phrase.
Snat kept up the chatter as he inspected the horn. “You see the stunties? Of course you saw ’em. How could you miss ’em? Bold as balls up there in the Swap. I mean I know they’re short and easy to overlook but they’re stirring up shit, big time. Chief Lard-Arse is–”
“Largash,” Addas corrected. “Chief Largash Goretusk.”
“–Lard-Arse is fielding their embassy right now. One of the bearded little feckers is even some kind of Prince. Making demands, he is. ‘Course our Chief is acting all frothy and monstrous, flogging his dog at ’em like he knows shit from porridge and he’s got muscle to do anything other than bend over and take it. Feck no. Stunties got everyone by the short and curlies these days. Still…Dwarves in this weather? Coming here from the White River? What, by Maglub’s hairy sack, what do you make of that?”
“Nothing to make,” Addas said carefully. “Got nothing to do with me.”
Snat was still scrutinizing the horn, but he nodded like he’d heard Addas and agreed. After another second, the goblin cocked his head and eyed him suspiciously. “Slap me stupid. This is real. Where’d you get it?”
“From a unicorn,” Addas said.
“From a unicorn, he says. Smartarse. Where?”
Addas said nothing, held out his hand for the horn.
“Fine.” Snat slapped it back in his palm. “Tell me later.”
“You will.” Snat spied the mail shirt. “Shit me blind! Prancey pokey pony do that?”
The goblin whistled appreciatively. “Using up all the luck left in the world, aint’ ya?”
Addas let out a bitter laugh. “Making my own.”
“The horn for a patch job, half a pound of jerky, half a loaf of barley and an ounce of salve for that slice,” Snat said quickly.
Addas laughed again, less bitter. The post-run haggle was a ritual between them. “Half the horn for a full pound, full loaf, the salve, and iron rings for the mend.”
The goblin grabbed his crotch. “Iron rings,” he scoffed. “Want my stones too? Two-thirds of the horn, new copper rings, half jerky, half a loaf, and a javelin head out of the final third.” He leaned towards Addas. “You know that iron head won’t last forever.”
Addas hesitated for a split-second and the little Goblin smiled. Addas lifted his arm and bared his injured side. “What am I going to do about this though?”
Snat’s amber eyes radiated mock sympathy. “Suffer silently?”
Addas held his gaze. “Throw in half an ounce of salve.” He’d reached bottom. Addas needed everything he could get for the horn, but pus and a fever from infection were out of the question.
The goblin spit in his hand and held it out. “Done.”
Addas spat in his own and they shook.
The horn and Addas’ mail shirt vanished into Snat’s tunic. The goblin winked. “Now to see if me and the boys can’t pinch one of them ponies. Cooks’ll pay good for horsemeat.”
“Talk about stirring up shit,” Addas exclaimed. “Chief’ll bust his gut, embassy horse goes missing. Breaks the Treaty. ”
Snat shrugged, started climbing the shale. “Hey, joke ’em if they can’t take a f—” Suddenly a bellowing started echoing off the rock, down the slope from the mouth of the tunnel above. An orc’s voice.
“Hey Piglet! Crawl your hairy little arse out here. Chief wants you in the Grotto. Now!”