‘The Magic Mines of Asharim’: Chapters 1-4

July 7, 2015 The Magic Mines of Asharim 0

1: The Mine Office

I gripped the rail with tense fingers, but the barge slid against the wharf with the softest of bumps. Below me, figures ran about with ropes, tying up with practised ease. With the groaning of heavy wood, a gangplank was positioned. I had arrived.

Cautiously I let go of the rail, prepared to grab again, but the barge was still. It was all of a piece, the smoothest, most trouble-free journey possible, and I couldn’t quite believe it. It seemed too good to be true. I wasn’t safe yet, but I was close, so close. Picking up my travel bag, I made my way to disembark with the handful of other passengers, as the crane was wheeled into place to begin unloading the cargo.

“Good luck, Allandra!” one of them called as they dispersed, and then they were all shouting to each other. “Good luck! Good luck!”

Allandra, yes. Must remember my new name.

I stared at my surroundings. Crenton Port was not much of a town. Some sturdy warehouses around the wharves, and a cluster of more imposing buildings in pale stone decorated with pillars and statuary, but none of any architectural merit. Beyond that nothing but scores of grazers’ cottages, built low to the ground with turf roofs, each with a pig-pen to one side and a few lines of dusty vegetables.

On the wharves, loading gangs ambled about lethargically. A box of vegetables flopped on its side, the contents trampled to mud. Two children with torn tunics and bare feet were trying to manoeuvre several goats onto a barge. Everywhere was dust and filth and ragged clothes.

Such a depressing sight. How far I had fallen in these last few desperate quarter moons. But this was my fate, now. It was just as well my father would never know.

But even here, at the farthest edge of what was once the Empire, there was still breath-taking beauty. Behind the town, low rounded hills shifted into higher peaks, up and up into the Sky Mountains themselves. Asharim, they were in High Mesanthian, which just meant ‘clouds’. With their tops still coated with snow even in mid-summer, it was an appropriate name.

Already the sun was dipping behind the peaks, casting the town into shade, although it was not much past noon. I shivered.

While I’d gazed about me, the other passengers had all disappeared. I was alone at last, my mind quiet. The torture of the cramped barge, with its crowded cabins and constant noise, was behind me. I took a deep breath, relishing my release.

But where was I supposed to go?

I spotted a woman directing an unloading gang, an overseer of some sort. I threaded my way through the workers.

“’Scuse me, bu’ where’s the Mine Office?”

My efforts at the local dialect seemed to convince her. Barely glancing at me, she pointed vaguely towards a jumble of buildings set back from the wharf. “Follow the rest, m’dear.”

I couldn’t see anyone to follow, but it was a small enough town, so I was bound to come to the Mine Office eventually. As I made my way along a dusty track between a warehouse and a small hut serving some noxious brew to the wharf crews, another building came into view, larger than the rest, its doors the focus for crowds of people coming and going. Drawing nearer, I could see letters engraved across the full width of the front: ‘Mine Office’.

Beyond the warped wooden doors, I found a murky hall, the floor tiled in dark green, the walls black. It was like being in a box. All around were closed doors, and a narrow spiral stair in one corner. A shaft of red light filtered down from a painted glass window somewhere far above. People in drab brown uniforms bustled about with boxes, or stirred up the dust with brooms.

Workers swirled around as I stood looking for signs over doors but the light was too dim to see.

“Yes, m’dear?” A woman with a sharp nose, hair pulled tightly away from her face, had stopped beside me.

Someone helpful at last. “I want to get a job.”

“Inside the mines or outside?”

“Inside.”

The woman turned her head away and shouted. “Jolan! ‘Nother one!” Without another word, she walked off.

Jolan was a young man, no more than fifteen, I guessed, with painfully red hair and freckles. “Thith way,” he said cheerfully. And a lisp, too. Poor boy.

He led the way through one of the unmarked doors, along a corridor no more inviting than the entrance hall and eventually into another, almost identical hall. This one boasted a broad flight of stairs, and the boy led the way up three floors and into a large room lined with hard wooden chairs. There was only one grimy window, but three flickering lamps created pools of dim light and deep shadows.

“Wait here,” he said, and vanished.

I walked in and took a seat, my boots clumping on the wooden floor. Several others were waiting too, and some I recognised from the barge. I nodded acknowledgement to them, but I didn’t know them well. I’d kept to myself on the journey, seeing fellow passengers only at meals or when taking my daily walk on deck. It was better not to get too friendly in case they asked any difficult questions. Like the other single women, I’d been given a private cabin, and I’d spent almost all the time hidden away.

No one spoke. They were all jittery with nerves, but then so was I. We were all running away from something, I supposed. Or someone.

There was a door at the far side of the room. Periodically a disembodied voice yelled, “Next!” and one of those waiting would jump up and vanish through the door. No one ever reappeared.

Eventually my turn came to pass through the door into the mysterious room beyond. A middle-aged woman sat behind a plain wooden table, better suited to a kitchen than an office. There was not a single paper or pen or letter knife or paperweight in sight, just a small wooden box at the woman’s elbow. Nor were there any shelves or cupboards in the room. My spirits rose. It suited me very well to have nothing written down.

“Sit,” she said, pointing to a chair in front of the table, the only other chair in the room. The woman wore the same drab brown uniform as everyone else, although she wore a brooch at her throat, perhaps a sign of rank. Her hair was pulled back off her face, too – it must be a fashion here – but in a less severe style.

I sat, folding my ankles neatly, then remembered to slouch. She looked me up and down once, but my scruffy tunic and trousers attracted no interest.

“You wish to work inside the mines.”

“Yes.”

She grunted, gazing at me expressionlessly, but I felt no antagonism from her. “You will need to be examined to determine your suitability. If we find you acceptable, we will decide what type of employment to offer you. This is not negotiable. Do you know what that means?”

“Yes.”

She explained as if I hadn’t spoken. “It means that you cannot ask for a particular job. We alone decide. You will have an opportunity to consider the offer, and you may accept or decline. Yes or no. If you accept, you will wait here until we assign you to a specific mine. You will not be able to refuse the specific assignment. You understand? You go where we send you, no arguments. Any questions?”

“No.”

“Very well. This is your number…” She opened a drawer and drew out a metal disk on a chain. A matching disk went into the box on the table. “Nine seven one. Wear this at all times. It is your identification. We do not care what your name is – you may call yourself anything you choose. This is how you will be known here. Through that door. May the Sun God bless your endeavours.” She was already turning away from me. “Next!”

~~~~~

The examinations lasted for ten days. I was given a small room of my own somewhere in the bowels of the building, with my number chalked on the outside, and there I stayed. The walls were thick and it was blessedly quiet. From time to time, someone came to bring food, to lead me off for some test or other, or to take me to the washing rooms. I was allowed to bathe every third day, which was something to be grateful for. I was required to wear the same drab ill-fitting uniform as everyone else, which was less pleasant. I missed the cool softness of silk next to my skin. Still, the plain trousers and tunic with roughly woven underthings made me anonymous, which was the main thing. It was hardly the worst thing that had happened to me. No one had asked for my name. I was just a number. Surely I was safe now?

The tests were uninteresting. Running, rope climbing, lifting weights, bending and stretching. I did badly at most of those. My body was examined, too. Teeth and gums, like a horse, skin for rashes or blemishes, ears and nostrils for unpleasant discharges, my woman’s parts for – what, exactly? Functionality, I supposed.

“Ever been pregnant?” the woman examining me asked, peering at my belly.

“No.”

Being prodded like a prize cow wasn’t an enjoyable experience, but I was too anxious to be embarrassed. Would she notice anything unusual about me? My nails were ragged enough now, and I’d hacked my own hair into ugliness, but she might still notice my soft, uncalloused hands. But perhaps she didn’t care that I was no field labourer.

Then there was my knowledge of domestic matters to be tested. Cooking, laundry, bread making, stitchery – I did well at that one – fire laying, dealing with mattresses. Mattresses! Who would have thought there was a schedule for turning them and renewing the stuffing?

The literacy test was more distressing. Books were my lifeblood, words the very air I breathed. My natural home was the Academia, surrounded by the entire Empire’s collected knowledge. It pained me to my core to pretend to be illiterate.

A man, this time. “Can you read or write?”

“Read a little. Some words. Don’t write much. My name, is all.”

He gave me a children’s book to read from, and I stumbled over the words well enough. He was convinced, anyway.

Then the aptitude test, the one I had to avoid at all costs. I just couldn’t risk it.

A silent girl showed me to an empty room with a table, a single chair and a closed metal box resting on it. Just a simple box, engraved on all sides with symbols, seemingly so harmless. I shuddered. It was a long time since I’d been so close to one, but the fear was just as fresh.

I could sense them, the things inside the box. Such small creatures, yet so evil.

And they were aware of me. I could feel them, their anger, their seething desire to kill.

An elderly woman guided me to the chair, closing the door behind me.

“Now, m’dear,” she said, “this is quite easy…”

“Don’t want to do this,” I said.

Her eyebrows rose, and she looked at me fully for the first time. She pushed the box aside and sat on the table. “You do realise that there are only three jobs within a mine – extractor, carrier and companion-servant? Nothing else. If you have the aptitude— How old are you, m’dear?”

“Twenty seven.”

“Ha. No, your real age.”

I hesitated, but could see no harm in it. “Nineteen.”

“Thought so. That’s the best age to train, you know. Old enough to be sensible, young enough to learn the skills. If you have the aptitude, you can train as an extractor, and that’s the best job in the mines, by far. Most women your age want to test for aptitude.”

“I… had a bad experience as a child.” At least, I knew someone who knew someone who did. Close enough.

“Ah. I understand. It can be very traumatising to be exposed too soon. Frightening for a young child. You’d never make an extractor with that history. Very well. I’ll take you back to your room.”

Relief washed through me. Thank the One, I had escaped that horror. But I still shook with fear for the rest of the day, and that night I slept badly, and my dreams were full of wild, uncontrolled rage, and smoke and ash.

The tests dragged on. Whenever I passed one, which wasn’t often, I was given a coloured disk to add to the chain around my neck. I earned very few, and began to wonder whether it would be enough.

Perhaps after all I would fail, and then where would I go?

~~~~~

Eventually all the tests were finished and I was summoned before another woman, her stone grey hair pulled back the same way as all the others. They all looked the same, these women. Blank, interchangeable ciphers, as devoid of personality as statues. This one had a bigger brooch, though.

The room was as sparsely furnished as the rest, but it boasted a chalk board on one wall with various numbers down one side – I could see mine – writing across the top and a spatter of marks in the centre. It was the first sign of a written record that I’d encountered.

“You are Nine Seven One?”

“Yes.”

“You have been examined.” Her glance slid to the board on the wall. “Hmm. You refused to test for aptitude.”

My eyes were drawn to the board too, searching out my own number and looking across for the aptitude column. An odd symbol, not one I recognised.

When I turned back, she was watching me with a twisted little smile on her face. I was uncomfortably afraid that I’d just revealed a degree more literacy than I’d admitted to. I licked my lips. She said nothing, however.

“You refused to test for aptitude,” she repeated, “so you cannot be an extractor. You do not have the strength for a carrier. Therefore the only job I can offer you is as a companion-servant.”

Relief. I’d thought for a moment she was going to toss me out altogether. That would have been disastrous. I had no alternative plan, none at all.

She leaned her elbows on the desk, pressing her fingers together, gazing at me steadily. Her accent betrayed her as an educated woman, and I was sure she could see right through my carefully constructed carapace to the real me curled inside.

“We get many here who are – hmm, leaving their past selves behind, shall we say? We ask no questions because it is of no interest to us. Once you enter the mines, your past is not just irrelevant, it is gone. It ceases to exist. Three years in the mines bleaches all stains. When you emerge, you may take a new name, begin a new life. But you should be aware – many who enter the mines emerge changed in other ways, too. More profound ways. The mines of Asharim are very special. That is why we ask you to commit to us for three years. If you decide to proceed, you will be assigned to one or other of the mines, and you will stay there for at least three years. You will not be able to leave, even if you wish to. There is no contact with the outside world. No messages, no visits, no packages from home. The mine is the whole world. Do you understand?”

“Yes.” I kept my voice level, but elation thrummed through me, making me tremble with excitement. I had succeeded!

“You will be a companion-servant – you know what that means, I suppose?”

“Yes.”

She grunted. “Well, better than the brothels, I suppose.”

Oh yes, very much better. That would never have worked. Far too much noise. This way – it was bound to be quieter. That was what I needed, three years of quiet to restore my equilibrium. To recover. To grieve. To forget, if I could.

“The work is light enough. A little domestic work, and usually no more than four or five men to take care of. They generally have a rota worked out already, but the first few days are always – a little hectic.” She blushed, which amused me. I guessed what she meant, though. With a new woman, there was bound to be some initial enthusiasm. Well, that was all right.

“You will wait here until we have an assignment for you. Waiting time does not count towards your three years. You may not refuse the assignment. Do you wish to proceed?”

“I do.”

Another grunt. “Very well. There are a couple ahead of you on the list, but it should not take long. You may return to your room, Nine Seven One.”

~~~~~

So I waited. I had a different room now, a bigger room with a window and a chair in one corner, in a square brick-built compound adjoining the Mine Office. More noise, but I could cope with it. A box held an array of better-fitting clothes, although still in boring brown. My hair was cut properly, tidying up my ragged efforts. I ate meals in a common room, and exercised in a high-walled yard alongside it. I was going to be doing physical work, not something I was used to, so I trained with weights and climbed ropes to strengthen my feeble muscles.

There were many others awaiting assignment. One or two I recognised from the barge, but they soon disappeared. Assigned, I suppose. Others replaced them, and were in their turn assigned, but I lingered on.

Some of those waiting struck up friendships, but I didn’t see the point. I would have to pretend to be friendly when I got to the mine, but until then I intended to keep clear of these people as much as possible. I was so much better on my own, and they were better away from me too, if they’d only known it. So I spent most of my time in my room, staring into space, growing increasingly restless. There was an edginess in everyone that set my nerves vibrating.

My nerves were jangling for other reasons, too. I was jittery by day, and woke sweating several times each night. The longer I waited, the worse it got. I was desperate to get to a mine, to be shut away, to be safe. Every day I expected someone to come for me. Surely they were looking for me by now? But no one came.

Three moons I waited. Then I was called to a room I’d never been to before. The woman was different, too, her hair not dragged back like everyone else, but cut short around her face, softer, more feminine. The brooch at her throat was large, with an intricate design.

“Well now, we have work for you at last.” Her smile was gentle, her accent city-educated, and for a gut-wrenching moment I was reminded of my father. “You will be going to Twisted Rock Mine.”

“Twisted Rock?” After all the numbers, it was odd to find that the mines had actual names.

She smiled. “Yes, such silly names the mines have. So. Twisted Rock. There are three men there, but two of them have been castrated.”

“Gracious, why?” I had forgotten the accent in my surprise. My hand flew to my mouth, but she either failed to notice, or chose not to comment.

“We get quite a few former criminals here. In some places, convicted rapists are castrated. Many of our male wagoners and mulers are like that. It does make life simpler all round. So – just the one man, the Master, but that does not necessarily make things easier for you. But we have had no complaints about this man. As to domestic arrangements – his sister is the Mistress, and she does the cooking with a couple of old women, so you need not worry about that. She will assign your daily chores. You get a half day off every quarter moon, and you will have your own room. Do not get pregnant there – it is a very bad idea. Keep your herbal brews locked away so they cannot be tampered with. Go and pack your box.”

“When do I leave?”

“Today. Right away. Be quick now.”

The wagons were waiting in the yard at the back of the Mine Office. Three covered wagons loaded to the roof with sacks and barrels and boxes and mysterious packages wrapped in hessian, and a fourth only half full, which also conveyed the human cargo, perched atop the goods in the most uncomfortable manner. I had barely scrambled aboard, my box tossed in alongside me, when the lead wagoner cracked his whip, the oxen heaved and we rolled slowly out of the yard and headed for the mountains and the mines.

 

2: The Mountain Path

At first the road rose slowly through rolling pastureland, the grass withered and autumn-brown. Goats scampered away as we passed by, the children tending them watching us with dull, incurious eyes. Here and there we saw small villages, ramshackle collections of cottages with crumbling walls and sagging roofs, the sweet smell of burning turf masking other less pleasant aromas.

From my perch in the wagon, the flaps wide open for ventilation, I had a fine view back down to Crenton Port, its bustling wharves along the lakeside alive with activity. Beyond, the grey waters of the river sprawled their way across the plains, the wide bends linked by neat lines of canals to avoid stretches where the river was too shallow for navigation. Further out, the summer haze hid the rest of the Two Rivers Basin and the endless plains. By noon of the first day, we had travelled far enough for a shoulder of the hills to hide the view and then there was nothing but the undulating grasslands around us and the snow-dusted peaks ahead.

There were five of us in the wagon. One was the simple-minded son of the lead wagoner, whose primary job was to watch over the wagons at night, so he slept the days away in a corner, snoring loudly. Two girls were going to be extractors. They were sisters, a little younger than me, who giggled and whispered non-stop. The final passenger was a young man going to be a companion-servant for the women. He was good looking and very sure of himself, flirting outrageously with the two girls and boasting of his prowess in bed. He didn’t flirt with me, though, not when he realised I wasn’t going to be one of his clients, but he watched me covertly when he thought himself unobserved.

At noon we stopped to rest the oxen and ourselves in the shade of a patch of kilicranji trees. Then onward and up, always up. Our evening stop was at a small shelter – not much more than three walls and a skin canopy – with an open fire pit and a rough hut behind it. The hut housed an elderly couple who provided a hot meal of some indeterminate grey blobs of meat in a watery stew. I was getting used to dreadful, tasteless food now, so I ate everything I was given.

There were two other groups of wagons there, heading for different mines, and all the wagoners gathered together to chat and chew some foul leaf and spit frequently. The two girls and the young man mingled with the other passengers around the fire (”No screwing!” our lead wagoner yelled at them), and I heard high-voiced chattering, masculine rumblings and shrieks of laughter. I found a rock to sit on some distance away until it was time to sleep. Too much noise for comfort.

The women slept in the shelter, the men under the wagons. I had nightmares that night, hearing voices in my head and dreaming of fire and ash again, but I managed not to scream and wake everyone.

The following day we passed the first branch in the road, leading to other mines. After that, we saw no other groups of wagons, only an occasional rider carrying messages back and forth. Gradually the pastures shrank to become slivers of grass between rocky outcrops, and the goat herders were left behind. We spotted a few deer on distant slopes, and numerous small rodents hopped fearlessly almost under the oxen’s feet. Hawks circled slowly far above us. Occasionally feral goats skittered up the rocks as we approached. The only people we encountered were at the overnight stops.

It was hard to avoid exchanging information with the other passengers. The wagoners were uninterested, just doing their job, but the other three were going to be my co-workers at the mine and they approached me with friendly curiosity. The two women gave their names as Dilla and Sanna, from Wetherrin, the largest port in the western canal system. Nobody asked about their aptitude, but they volunteered the information anyway. Dilla’s connection was to mice and rats and other small rodents, which I supposed accounted for the lack of fear in the creatures as we rumbled past them. Sanna wasn’t sure what her connection was – she thought it might be mushrooms – but she said she’d always known she had one. The young man called himself Rufin. His parents were lock keepers just west of Wetherrin, or so he said. There was no way to be sure.

I gave them my new name, and told them I was from Hurk Hranda. It was true enough in its way, I just wasn’t there recently. There was no way I dared mention Caxangur, though, in case any news had filtered along the waterways.

Rufin raised an eyebrow. “I’d have said you were coastal, by the look of you.”

I shrugged, used to the question. “‘Spect my ancestors were from further north. My great great something.”

“Yeah, probably.” He shrugged, and drifted away from me. He kept circling round the two girls, though, flirting and teasing, whispering in their ears and stealing kisses when the wagoners weren’t looking. Lust hung around him like mountain mist, and once he actually screwed Sanna behind the shelter wall. I kept well away from him until he’d calmed down.

On the fifth or sixth day, we came to a fast-flowing stream, racing down from the mountain peaks looming above us. The road passed over a narrow bridge, and for the rest of that day we were confined within a narrow gorge alongside the stream, gloomy and dank. The road crossed and recrossed the valley, and sometimes dived through short tunnels, the sound of the rumbling wheels bouncing ominously around us so that the two girls clung to each other, or to Rufin, in fear. Late in the afternoon we emerged onto a windswept plateau, brown with bog and spattered with murky pools, the road tiptoeing across on a causeway.

It felt like a release, but ahead of us now the mountains loomed closer, craggy peaks towering over us, as if during our time in the gorge they had stealthily crept much nearer to block our way. How were we ever to go any further? There was nothing here except rock and wasteland, home only to bog plants and tiny insects and twisted shrubs, stunted by the wind. Even our breath was hard to draw, as if the mountains had sucked all the air away.

But there at the far side of the causeway, huddled low to the ground, was a walled compound with several buildings.This was the mule station, where we would leave the wagons and oxen behind, making the rest of the journey on the beasts.

This was the most populous overnight stop since the first night. The mule station housed about twenty people to tend the animals, and help with the loading and unloading. There were several married couples amongst them, which made the atmosphere more civilised, somehow. I didn’t feel quite so out of place. And the food was better: a roast haunch of venison as well as the inevitable stew, plenty of cheese (goat, but I was quite used to that now) and the pleasure of fresh bread. There was even a basket of apples. We ate indoors, and there were dormitories with proper beds and several blankets.

That night for the first time I stayed with the group as everyone relaxed around the fire after the meal. One of the mulers played a crincheon and two of the women sang, and later one of the men told a long, dramatic story of some hero or other who reversed any number of disasters and set everything to rights. If only there were heroes like that in the real world, to come sweeping in with their swords and dragons and magical powers. But the dragons and mages were gone, and heroes were hard to come by, so injustices lingered on and too many terrible things happened that could never be set right.

~~~~~

We left at first light the following morning, and as soon as I put my nose out of doors I understood why. The temperature had dropped sharply overnight, sprinkling the ground with frost, and the clouds were dark enough to presage snow. The lingering warmth of the plains had gradually disappeared as we’d climbed into the foothills, but this was the first hint of winter. The mulers laughed and joked as we prepared to depart, their breath clouding. I shivered and pulled my cloak tighter about me. But as I breathed, the frosted air chilled me inside. It felt good, as if it were cleansing me, scouring away all my evils.

Although part of our wagons’ contents was for the mule station, most of it was now repacked and strapped onto a long train of mules. It was astonishing how much those little beasts could carry. Dilla, Sanna, Rufin and I were to ride, with six mulers to keep us safe. I had ridden before, although nothing so undignified as a mule, but the other three were new to the process. The two girls squealed every time their beasts moved, until shouted at by the mulers. Rufin was too proud to admit his fear but his eyes were as round as plates.

In reality, there was nothing dangerous about the journey. The path we followed was a clear one, wide enough for two mules to walk abreast, and far away from any steep slopes. Small bridges traversed the numerous streams, and hurdles were laid across the worst bogs.

There was something exhilarating about being out in the open air, the sharp tang of frosty air in my nostrils, the mule beneath me blowing and snorting. The few flurries of snow that fell from time to time added to the enjoyment. I had not seen snow since my time at Hurk Hranda, and even then it was never deep or long-lasting. Here in the high mountains, I could barely wait to experience my first proper winter, with snow deep enough to bury a wagon.

Once the mulers realised my competence with the mule, I was allowed to ride nearer the front, keeping me well away from the fear infusing the three novices. It was very pleasant, and I hummed under my breath as I rode.

The overnight stops now were a little different. There were no shelters and huts, no kindly old couple to greet us with hot food already prepared, however poor the cooking. The first night we stayed in what was clearly a natural cave, large enough to hold us and all the mules. Two of the mulers built a fire, while the others tended the mules. There was no hot food, only dried meat, bread and cheese, although we were given hot tennel, the slightly minty local brew.

The girls and Rufin were euphoric at having survived the day unharmed, without once having fallen from their mounts. They bubbled away, giggling and teasing each other, and it was obvious where their thoughts were heading. I went outside the cave with my cloak to huddle on a rock until they settled down to sleep and it was safe for me to return.

One of the mulers found me out there. I suspected he’d followed me out. “Allandra? You all right?”

“Oh yes. Fine.”

He grunted, but said nothing, settling beside me on the rock, chewing on an apple. It was almost brightmoon, so I had a clear view towards the mountains, the snow on their peaks perhaps a little thicker than before, reaching lower down their shoulders.

“Is it much further?”

“Two more days. Y’see that ridge to th’left o’ that double peak? Well, it’s jus’ behind that.”

Before I could say anything else, the ground shifted under us, shaking slightly, and there was a distant rumbling sound.

“Jus’ an earthquake,” he said. “Happens all th’time here.”

I heard squeals and raised voices from the cave, then a deeper voice, as one of the mulers reassured the two girls and Rufin. I felt no alarm in the muler beside me, though, chewing stolidly on his apple. It was rather exciting. I’d read about earthquakes, but the descriptions were quite unlike the real thing.

“Do you get stronger ones?”

He shrugged. “Sometimes. Nothin’ big enough to cause damage, mostly. Just lots o’ these little ones. Nothing t’ worry about.”

I wasn’t picking up anything untoward from him. Usually a man of that age – not much above thirty – who seeks out a young woman, alone, is feeling something towards her, but he just seemed friendly and perhaps concerned. But then his wife was another of the mulers so perhaps that wasn’t so surprising.

“Y’know, Allandra, those three in there, they may be a bit childish in lots o’ ways, but you’re going t’be spending lots o’ time with them at th’mine. It might help t’be – a bit more open. You’ll need friends inside.”

Perhaps he was right, but I couldn’t be close to them when they were in that mood. It was too difficult. At the mine, Rufin’s energies would be absorbed and the girls would settle down, everything would be quieter, but just now they were too excitable for me. He meant well, though.

“Thank you, but I prefer not to rush into friendships.”

He nodded. “Well, jus’ take care, all right? The last girl was quiet, too, and look what happened t’ her.”

I said nothing. I didn’t know what had happened to the last girl, but it hardly mattered. She wasn’t me. After a while the muler went back inside.

The moon was setting before the cave was quiet enough for me. I crept in to the nearest empty space, then, exhausted, curled up on the sandy floor and slept where I lay.

I woke in the middle of the night, filled with someone’s distress. One of the girls – Sanna, I thought. She was sobbing quietly, and the older girl was whispering soothingly to her, although she was upset, too. Homesick, it felt like. As always at such times, I wished above all things that there was something I could do to help, instead of being an impotent witness. I crept silently to the far side of the cave, near the mules, and tried to sleep again.

The next day was miserable, with cloud all round and a stinging, sleety rain hurled against us by the wind. We huddled wretchedly in our cloaks, hoods up, as the mules plodded steadily on, following a line of marker poles through the wilderness, winding up and down and around interminably. The rain bothered them not at all. Then another night in a cave, this one smaller and man made, the marks of the picks clear to see on the stone walls. And another dreary morning of rain, steadier and more drenching. But by noon the clouds had lifted and we could see at last.

We were in the arms of the mountains, with forbidding peaks and knife-sharp ridges all around us, everything rain-darkened broken stone and steep slopes to narrow valleys far below. The path zig-zagged its way up a shoulder of one mountain, then jinked around a ridge towards another. Above us towered a pillar of rock wind-blasted to an odd shape – the twisted rock that gave the mine its name, I guessed. And as we rounded the ridge, there it was ahead of us. The mulers shouted with glee and urged the tired beasts onwards.

Whatever I’d expected of a mine in the Sky Mountains, this wasn’t it. I’d seen mines before – for stone or gold or gemstones – all of them dank, echoing holes in the ground. Squatting outside them, dusty collections of functional buildings, nothing pleasant about them at all.

But this – it was beautiful. The outer wall swept out from the mountain on one side, swinging round in a perfect circle to meet the mountain again, with towers and roofs peeping above the parapet, and all in some golden yellow stone that, to my rain-battered eyes, appeared to glow. It looked like an oasis in the desert, a haven of tranquillity, not a working mine, and even though I knew that this was no ordinary mine, it still seemed incongruously charming. My spirits rose. Only a single crane perched on the wall betrayed its businesslike nature.

The path wound downwards and then up again, so that we approached the mine from below. The towers were hidden now, and the nearer we came to the wall, the higher and more impenetrable it became. I looked for the entrance, but could see none. It was smooth and unblemished, not a mark on it, and I was right, it was glowing.

In front of the wall was a wide, flat area and here we circled the mules and dismounted.

From far above, a voice floated down to us. “Hoy, there! Welcome to Twisted Rock!”

 

3: Twisted Rock Mine

I still could see no way through or round the wall, but the mulers began unloading so I guessed some way would be found. A metallic clanking sound far above made me look up towards the crane, and there, slowly spinning as it descended, was a wooden contraption, a combination of chair and cage. Oh. So that was how to get over the wall.

The two girls were clutching each other fearfully, and Rufin chewed his lip, brow furrowed. One of the mulers steadied the spinning chair as it neared the ground, opened the cage door, then looked expectantly at the four of us. Well, I’d taken far greater risks over the last few moons. I stepped forward and cautiously sat in the chair. It rested on the ground so it was quite firm. The muler shut the door and fixed a pin to hold it closed, then shouted, “Away!”

I won’t say it was the most comfortable ride I’ve ever taken, but the crane operators were gentle and I rose smoothly into the air, swaying and rotating as the wind caught me. Fortunately I was too far from the wall to be in danger of being dashed to pieces. Below me, the mules and their attendants became as tiny as ants, the mulers scuttling round busily. Just when I was sure I was as high as the ridge opposite, the cage spun round again and I saw I was above the parapet of the wall. The cage swung inwards and hands grabbed the bars as I was lowered with barely a bump to the ground. The door was opened for me and I stepped out onto the wide ledge along the top of the wall.

On the outside, a high parapet blocked my view of all but the highest peaks. On the inside, the wall was low and there below me lay my new home. This was no ramshackle mining village. I couldn’t even see the opening to the mine for the splendid buildings surrounding it. Towers and tall houses in rows, with broad streets and narrow alleys, courtyards and fountains, walled gardens with fruit trees and fish ponds. You could have lifted the whole of it, and set it down in the middle of Caxangur, or perhaps Mesanthia, which was mostly yellow stone too, and it wouldn’t have looked out of place. It was more regular, perhaps, and certainly more elegant than Caxangur, which was a monstrously ugly place. Mesanthia was more graceful, with its domes and spires and slender bridges and walls of glass, although more of a jumble. But you would never have found an open space large enough to set down Twisted Rock Mine; it was a veritable town.

I suppose my mouth was hanging open in astonishment, because a woman standing nearby laughed with a harsh honking sound. “It is breathtaking, isn’t it, m’dear?” She was middle-aged, an angular woman with a face made sharper by her severe, pulled-back hair. The brooch at her throat betrayed her rank.

“Yes. I had no idea.”

She honked again. “Good. Better to stay secret, wouldn’t you say? You must be the companion-servant.”

“Yes. I’m Allandra.”

Another bark of laughter. “I’m Chendria, Mistress here. Ah, this must be… the other companion-servant.”

Rufin went through the same process of astonishment, and then the two girls after him. Chendria laughed equally at all of us, although she must have seen this reaction many times, and you would think the amusement would fall flat after the first two or three times. Not for Chendria, it seemed.

“Good, good! Here we all are, so let’s go down below and get you settled in while the supplies are brought over. This way, this way, m’dears!”

She led us along the wall to the nearest steps. Along the way, we had to pass a neat pile of metal boxes, each engraved with the familiar warning symbols. The other three passed them by without a glance – I wasn’t even sure if they recognised them – but I did. They were quiet now, the creatures within, but still malevolent. I crept past as far from the boxes as possible.

On the wall we’d been exposed to the wind, but as soon as we descended a little way, the air felt mild, almost balmy after the bitter weather of the last few days. I threw back my cloak, revelling in the pleasant afternoon sun.

“Oh yes,” Chendria said. “You won’t need that here. There! Down we go.”

Clustered around the bottom of the steps was another surprise – half a dozen children. Surely this remote mountain was no place to raise children? Yet here they were, staring silently at us, then running away as soon as anyone spoke to them.

“Take no notice,” Chendria said. “They always get excited when the supplies come in. Not far now. This is the Main House over here, where we have our meals and so on. Dilla, Sanna, you’ll be in the Spider House across the square for now. Easy to recognise – it has a spider carved on the wall. Rufin will be just next door in the Palm House. Allandra, your house is a bit further away. Here we are. Come along inside, m’dears.”

My house? I supposed she meant the Master’s House. I imagined I’d have to share with him, although a house of my own would be – no. I quickly suppressed the thought. Better not get too excited. But at least, being further away from the others would be good.

The Main House was just a part of a long line of houses, each one different but with an overall symmetry that was very pleasing to the eye. The lower floor held a number of interconnected rooms with marble floors, and exquisitely carved wooden furniture made of – I wasn’t sure. A mixture of pale and dark woods, but none I recognised. I was usually good with such details but these were new to me. There were hangings on the walls depicting heroic events with dragons flying, archers on their backs, and men with swords below. Rugs spattered the floor with vibrant colours. Eventually we came to a large square room, one side a steaming, bubbling kitchen filled with the aroma of freshly baked cakes, the other side containing a single huge table.

“This is where we eat,” Chendria said, rather unnecessarily. “There are fifty eight of us here now, with you four, and everyone takes meals together. It’s much easier that way. Now, these are Lazzlia and Lilyana, who help me in the kitchen.” A pair of toothless old women, who grinned at us through clouds of steam. “And some of our extractors…” She rattled off a list of names, and an array of indistinguishable women smiled and nodded. I supposed I’d work them all out in time. “The carriers are all busy on the wall just now, so you’ll meet them later – or tomorrow, perhaps. Lazzlia, some tennel and cakes for our newest friends.”

Then, almost as an afterthought, “Oh, and this is Petreon, the Master here.”

He’d been hiding in a corner, almost hidden by a painted screen. A middle-aged man with harsh features, dark haired, dark eyed. Hard to tell beyond that. It could have been worse, I suppose. Besides, appearance had never affected me.

The old women produced pots of tennel and plates of cakes warm from the oven, and everyone gathered round the table to eat and drink. The extractors scooped up Dilla and Sanna, and, for different reasons, Rufin, and they were soon chattering away like old friends. I’d never worked out the trick of it, that light way of talking about nothing at all, just being sociable. Give me a treaty to analyse, and I could talk all day, but chattering away about nothing was beyond me. Chendria took it upon herself to talk to me, seeing me left out of things, and presumably feeling sorry for me. I rather wished she’d leave me alone.

Petreon slid out of his corner to join us at the table. He was tall and gangly, but slightly stooped, and in his ill-fitting brown uniform, he looked rather like a spider. His brooch was larger, more ornate. He sat opposite me, and every time I looked at him he was staring at me. Caught out, he looked down at his mug. But a few moments later, he’d be staring at me again.

It was understandable. I’d be warming his bed, he was bound to be wondering whether he’d be getting a cold fish or a passionate firefly. Well, he wouldn’t be able to tell by looking at me, that was for sure, any more than I could tell about him from looks alone. He said nothing, but now that he was close, I could feel the desire pouring off him like water. It must be a while since he’d had a woman. Well, it was a while since I’d had a man, and I didn’t have to resist any longer.

When Chendria pushed her mug away and said, “Well, Allandra, I’ll show you to your house,” I didn’t hesitate.

“Perhaps Petreon would like to show me where I’ll be staying?”

Surprise registered on both their faces, but he was up and half way to the door before she’d formulated the words to refuse.

“Oh. Oh well, I daresay… perhaps… yes, why not?”

I rose smoothly and followed him, picking up his growing excitement. By the One, at last!

He led me in silence through a different door into a wide square with a fountain in the centre, the rhythmic splash of water not calming him in the slightest. I could feel my own excitement rising to match his. Across the square, through an archway into a smaller square lined with hedges, across that and down a narrow roadway between buildings that looked like shops, all closed up. Then across another, broader road and through a gate into a walled courtyard fronting a trio of houses.

Two of the doors sat side by side. He pointed to one door. “Mine.” Then the other. “Yours.”

He opened the door to my house – I really did get my own house! And although it was right next door to his, it was still separate, my private space, and well away from everyone else.

Inside, there were two small rooms downstairs, one fitted out as a sitting room and the other a study or office, one wall lined from floor to ceiling with bookshelves, all empty. My heart ached to fill them, but that was impossible here. Behind was a tiny kitchen. Upstairs a bathing room, a small store room and a single large bedroom. He showed me all this without a word, throwing open doors and then moving on. We ended up in the bedroom and finally he stopped, turning to look at me, his expression neutral, but I wasn’t fooled. He was as still as a statue, but inside he was boiling with desire.

I had no intention of playing games. With one movement I swept off my tunic and under vest, and began to unfasten my trousers. His eyes widened, and with a low growl in his throat, he caught hold of me and pushed my trousers down, scrabbling at his own.

And then he was inside me, hard and urgent, his hands pulling on my buttocks, making little grunting sounds with every thrust. Nothing could have pleased me better. After so many moons with desire swirling around me and having to fight the temptation, I was as desperate as he obviously was. Hail and glory, but it was unbelievably good! I closed my eyes, and surrendered to his desire, letting it wash over me and sweep me away, drowning in it.

Afterwards, we stood motionless for a while, both of us panting like winded horses. Then he tidied himself up, and with a grunted “Thank you” he left me alone. A man of few words indeed.

~~~~~

I was contented that evening as I hadn’t been since leaving Caxangur. Even the lust emanating from Rufin and some of the women didn’t bother me, because now I had a way to deal with it. It had no power to overwhelm me, or make me disgrace myself. So long as Petreon came to me regularly, I would be able to resist.

The meal was surprisingly good. There was the roast meat and soup and several pies I expected, easy, filling cottage food. But there were also light savouries with creamy sauce, a delicate salad and fresh fish. There was even shellfish, and the One only knows how they got hold of it, for we were hundreds of marks from the nearest source.

After the meal, Rufin and the other two male companion-servants took off in a cloud of giggling women, and I didn’t have to guess what they had in mind. I wondered how they would choose who had the new man first, and whether the other two would feel slighted by all the attention he was getting. Then I wondered about Chendria, who showed no interest but was still of an age to have needs. But perhaps she preferred women.

Some of the older women stayed behind, and the conversation became more sensible. Being the only new arrival left, I was inevitably the focus of their interest, but their questions weren’t searching. When I gave them the lie about coming from Hurk Hranda, those who knew it were more interested in finding out if I knew their kin who lived there, or particular landmarks they recalled. But since none of them had lived there recently, I was able to get away with it.

The only strange moment was when one of the women commented on my colouring. “You don’t look like you come from the hill tribes, or anywhere in Two Rivers, Allandra. Are you Trannatta?”

“No, not at all!” I was shocked at the idea. I looked nothing like the Tre’annatha.

“But you must be from the far north,” one of the others said. “Beyond the desert.”

“She’s Akk’ashara.” It was the first thing Petreon had said all evening, apart from “Pass the pie” and “Is there any more gravy?” He even had the pronunciation correct, which surprised me.

There was a silence, and they all looked at me appraisingly, some shocked, some fearful.

I shrugged. “’Spose so. Somewhere in the family.”

“She doesn’t talk high,” someone said dubiously.

Petreon grunted, not looking at me, but saying nothing else.

I hadn’t expected to be pinned down quite so quickly. In most low company, I could pass myself off as one of the hill tribe people or wave my hands and talk vaguely about the coast. There were plenty of people with skin as dark as mine, and many with ear tattoos. As a child, I’d spent more time with the servants than my father, so my natural speech was servant class. But to anyone who’d travelled a bit, my origins were obvious, and Petreon was clearly more educated than I’d given him credit for.

Eventually the party broke up as everyone headed for their beds, Chendria and the two cooks to their rooms above the kitchen, the women and children to the row of nearby houses where they all lived, and Petreon and I to our adjoining houses several squares away. The moon was still bathing us in full light, and on the wall the crane had finally fallen silent.

As we reached our neighbouring doors, he hesitated. He didn’t have to speak a word, for I knew exactly what he wanted. He was no doubt wondering whether I was going to protest: I was too tired, it had been a long day, I needed my sleep, come back tomorrow.

I turned to face him, resting one hand on his chest, feeling his agitation rising as I did so. “Petreon, I want you to understand that you can come to me whenever you want. You can stay the night if you like, or go back to your own bed, whichever you prefer. You don’t need to ask, all right? This is what I’m here for.” And it’s what I’ve been waiting for, needing.

He nodded. I entered my house, and silently he followed me in.

“I found some kind of a sweet alcoholic drink in the sitting room. Would you like a drink and a chat first, or shall we go straight upstairs?”

“Upstairs.”

We both undressed fully this time, and lay down on the bed. He played with my breasts for a while, and then without a word rolled on top of me, pushing roughly inside. I sighed with pleasure.

I’ve heard many women complain that their men are too rough or too quick, and don’t take the time to gentle them to readiness. I pity them, and perhaps it is a great gift to be able to respond instantly, as I do, to reach the peaks of pleasure every time.

Yet it seems to me more like a curse, to feel another person’s emotions roiling through me. Everything they feel, I feel too, with no way to shut it out or escape it. All the way from Caxangur, on the river, on the canals, on the road into the mountains, my mind was assaulted by every emotion swirling through the head of every person I met.

With small groups it is bearable. Some emotions I can run away from, like fear or sorrow or hatred, and some are wonderful, like love and joy, but desire, overwhelming unmet desire, has nearly been my ruin. More than once I’ve found myself screwing like a street cat, just to relieve the terrible need.

This is the only way I’ve found to deal with it, by giving myself wholly to a man. By assuaging his desire, I am also assuaging my own. It isn’t love, and I don’t even ask for friendship. But better this way, bringing some happiness to a lonely man, than roaming the streets on dark nights in desperation.

 

4: Inside The Mine

Twisted Rock had its own rhythm, as all small communities do. Farms, small villages, craft shops, even households of any size, all have their routine, so that every hour has its set activities. After first table, Chendria assigned the chores to the carriers and the four companion-servants.

Mine were not arduous: some tidying and sweeping, bringing laundry to the boiling room, then chopping vegetables or meat, or weighing ingredients for breads and cakes. After second table, I folded and pressed my own and Petreon’s laundry, and did any stitch work that was needed. There was nothing that exposed my domestic incompetence, thank the One. Once or twice Lazzlia or Lilyana chided me for slicing the vegetables too thinly, or failing to trim the meat to their standards, but I learned quickly what was needed and no one commented on my lack of skill.

I had sole charge of my house and Petreon’s, and helped Chendria with the Main House. The three male companion-servants looked after their own house and the extractors’ houses. The carriers, four women and the two castrated men, did all the heavy work, carting around sacks of flour or barrels of oil, and managing the huge boiling vats for the laundry.

It was strange to me to see the carriers working that way, but then the extractors’ role was different, too. At any normal mine, the extractors would do the hard work inside, working with picks or chisels or, for the giant marble quarries, explosives. The carriers would haul away the valuable goods and debris. Here, there was nothing heavy to haul. As for the extractors, I had no idea how they did what they did, nor did I want to know. As far as I could tell, they spent their days in what was called the Mine House, the nearest house to the mine entrance, sewing or weaving or just gossiping, with the children playing nearby. I suppose they must have gone into the mine sometimes, but I never saw them do it.

All of the extractors were women and most were young, a few years either side of twenty. But a few were older, and one of the oldest, Kijana, took an interest in me. A pleasant woman, usually surrounded by a cloud of children, she was from one of the hill tribes near Hurk Hranda originally. Although she knew I wasn’t a compatriot, I think she still felt an affinity, since all the others were plains folk. She was the only one who had tattoos around her ears, similar to mine. She would sit and talk to me in the evenings, not about her home or family, any more than I did, but about Twisted Rock.

“It’s a proper town, you know,” she told me one time. “There are craft workshops and taverns and a place with a big pool in it…”

“A bathhouse?” I said excitedly.

“Oh, I don’t know. I suppose it might be. I’ve never seen one.”

I wanted to see it at once, and although she laughed at my enthusiasm, she agreed to take me. Some of the others tagged along as well – Rufin and some of his admirers, several of the children, and Petreon, to my surprise.

Kijana led the way quickly through the streets, still brilliant with brightmoon, to a deserted corner of the town. On a large square with yet another fountain adorning it – I had never seen so many working fountains, it was quite upsetting – was a pillared and porticoed building, its friezes decorated with carvings of shells and fanciful sea creatures. The whole place was new to me, but it was clear from the surprise I detected in the others that none of them had been there before, either. I wondered at their lack of curiosity. Petreon was less surprised, so I guessed he’d looked around a bit.

The building was small, but there was no doubt it was a true bathhouse, built in the style fashionable during the Khurmizzan empire and still in favour in some parts, with separate hot, warm and cold pools, but no division for men and women. There were still one or two such to be found in Mesanthia. There were strange aspects here, though, like the broad galleries overlooking the pools, and the marble cubes arranged almost like tables with stools around them, as if anyone would eat at a bathhouse. Very odd.

But the oddest part of it was that the place was not neglected, but sat in readiness, as if the occupants had just that moment stepped outside. The hot pool steamed gently, rills of fresh water flowing gently over marble rims into one end and out at the other. There was a faint scent of flowers rising from the water. Towels and soap were laid on tables reflected in the gleaming marble floor. I half expected to see wet footprints leading away from the pools. High above, an oculus of painted glass slowly rotated by some unknown device, casting ever changing patterns of colour over the pools.

“Who looks after this place?” I asked, awed.

Petreon shrugged, and Kijana said, “No one does. But all the buildings are like this.”

But then so much of Twisted Rock was odd. I’d only been there a few days, and hadn’t yet had the time to assimilate everything about the place, but standing there in the bathhouse the peculiarity of it hit me with the force of a tidal wave. There were hearths, but although the fires were never lit, I never felt chilled. The cooking pots sat on stones that burned yet were never consumed, the flames increased or reduced by a lever. The fountains still worked, pumping out clean water with no sign of leaf debris or the green scum that anywhere else would float on the surface.

The others were uncomfortable in the bathhouse, so we went back to the Main House. Later, when I left to head for my house, Petreon padding in my wake, I turned to him and said, “I’m going to bathe in the bathhouse. Do you want to come?”

Wordlessly, he followed me. I pushed open the door to the bathhouse, smiling in anticipation. A proper bathhouse! At Hurk Hranda I had gone every day to bathe in the women’s pool in the foreign quarter. There was only a warm pool, but you could douse yourself with cold water first if you wanted, then lounge in the main pool as long as you wished. Some women with nothing better to do stayed there all day, drinking cooled fruit juices and gossiping endlessly, but I usually went early, when it was almost empty.

I tossed my clothes aside and waded into the cold pool, shivering in delight. Petreon watched me solemnly.

“Aren’t you coming in?” I asked.

I could feel the desire coursing through him, but he shook his head. When I’d walked breast-deep through the cold pool and crossed to the warm one, he changed his mind and started undressing. His desire was even more obvious then.

I took some soap, glorying in the waxy smoothness of it, and the heady scent. Something exotic. By the time I’d washed myself, Petreon was gingerly stepping down into the water. He was even more of a spider undressed, all skinny arms and legs, his chest shrunken so that the bones protruded. It was lucky I didn’t care about his appearance, for he was anything but attractive.

He stopped half way down the steps.

“Come on, it’s perfectly safe,” I said.

Another couple of steps, so the water lapped around his waist.

“There’s a shelf you can sit on over here.” I sat down to show him, then got up and led him by the hand. He inched his way along, feeling carefully with his feet to be sure there were no sudden drops. I don’t think he’d ever been in a proper bathing pool before.

Eventually I got him sat down, and set to work soaping him all over. His lips twitched, the nearest he’d ever come to a smile. When my hands reached further down, he sighed and closed his eyes, leaning his head back against a pillar. Men are so simple to please, it’s quite charming, really. When I could tell he was ready, I sat astride him, sliding him inside me, and he groaned and buried his face between my breasts. After that, I didn’t have to do anything at all.

When it was over, we moved to the hot pool. We sat side by side, soaking in the water which flowed constantly, always at the perfect temperature. He was silent, as usual. I liked that better than talking. It was very restful. But now that the lust had been dealt with, all sorts of other emotions floated through him, flitting into his mind and out again, like the steam curling round the pillars. Amusement – no, it was stronger than that. Glee, almost. Something close to triumph. And wisps of a stronger feeling – dislike bordering on disgust. That was curious, and a little unsettling. He was a strange man, no doubt about it.

~~~~~

“Well, Allandra,” Chendria said one morning at first table, “I have something different for you to do today, m’dear. You’re to go into the mine.”

My heart flip-flopped, and I almost stopped breathing. “Whatever for?” I squeaked.

“Rules,” she said airily. “Everyone has to understand what we do here, in case of – incidents.” Her expression was solemn, but there was an undercurrent of amusement running through her. She found my fear entertaining, for some reason. Petreon snorted, which I was learning was his version of laughter. A fine pair, the two of them, enjoying my discomfiture.

“Do I have to?” My heart was pounding in my chest. I hadn’t expected this.

“Oh, yes! Everyone has to, rules and all that, m’dear. I’m sure you’ll survive.” And she laughed openly at me. “It’s not as if you had any aptitude, or you wouldn’t be just a companion-servant.” This time it was a wave of disdain.

“And if I refuse?”

A stillness dropped over the room like a blanket. Petreon was expressionless but Chendria’s eyebrows shot upwards. “Refuse? Why, then I’d make your life quite miserable, m’dear. I don’t recommend that.” Her tone was as brittle as ice.

Kijana leaned across the table to pat my hand. “They can’t hurt you, Allandra. Once you’ve seen them, you’ll understand. I’ll take you in, if you like, and show you round.”

I smiled and nodded, but I wasn’t reassured.

As soon as the meal was finished, the extractors left in a chattering crowd, like a flock of geese, the children scampering ahead of them.

Kijana smiled at me. “Shall we go?”

I nodded, trailing miserably along behind her as she left the Main House. Chendria smirked at me as I passed her by, and for an instant I caught the same feeling of disgust from her as I’d felt in Petreon. Was that aimed at me? Interesting.

Outside, the sky was heavy with snow, and if I looked up I could see flakes swirling and dancing far above. Few reached the ground, though, melting to a fine drizzle to cast shimmering nets over our hair and clothes. It was peculiar, walking round in a snowfall with no cloak or scarves or fur-lined gloves. I often wondered what caused the unnatural warmth. It was a benign effect, at least. Probably the town was built above an area of hot springs which kept the winter weather at bay.

All too soon Kijana and I caught up with the others. I hated crowds – I never knew when there was going to be an outbreak of some violent emotion to knock me sideways – but the women were in a relaxed mood today, no extremes, either good or bad. The group drifted through the streets to the Mine House, and vanished inside with the younger children. The older ones milled about outside. I paused on the threshold, but Kijana gently took my arm and led me inside.

The house was no different from any other in the town, with a series of well-furnished rooms. One room was set aside for the children to play in, another for weaving and sewing, and there was a kitchen where the women brewed tennel.

A small group of us, five women and several children, continued through the kitchen and out to a small courtyard at the back of the house. There was a stone fountain here, no more than a dragon’s head spouting water into a basin, but the carving was exquisite. I would have liked to examine it more closely, but Kijana pulled me onward to an archway, with steps leading down. There were no lamps or windows, and the gloomy daylight penetrated only a few steps down, but the smooth walls glowed a buttery yellow and I could see my way perfectly well.

At the bottom of the steps, a tunnel led straight as a spear into the heart of the mountain, and I understood now why I’d never seen the women going into the mines.

“Why this way?” I asked. “Why not go in above ground? There is an entrance, isn’t there?”

“Oh yes, but it works better if we use the tunnel. It doesn’t take them by surprise, somehow. Not much further now.”

The tunnel ended in solid rock, but a ramp spiralled upwards, bringing us into a vast spherical cave many hundreds of paces across. There was no golden glow, nor any obvious source of light, but I could see with great clarity, although it seemed to me as if my vision was slightly out of alignment, like looking through a prism. Around me, the air was a hazy blue. The cave floor was as smooth as planed wood, but the walls and roof were pitted with thousands of holes, and I could feel the creatures within them. Oddly, there was no evil in them now, just a warmth, as if they were welcoming us, and a subtle curiosity. It was like being surrounded by a multitude of friends. It wasn’t at all what I’d expected, having only ever seen their terrifying side before.

There were moveable raised platforms scattered about, presumably so the women could reach the higher parts of the cavern. While I stood and stared, Kijana at my side, the others strolled about, silent and serious, an air of concentration on each face, even the children.

“Do you each have your own area to work?” I asked.

“No. The flickers choose us, not the other way round.”

Flickers. A silly name. In High Mesanthian they were mak’tersshikor – an old expression which was translated variously as ‘stone creatures of the depths of night’ or perhaps ‘creatures who flow from the stone in darkness’. And that didn’t come close to describing them. But ‘flickers’ made them sound rather charming, like over-active glow-worms.

“I don’t know if you can imagine this,” Kijana went on, “but we are aware of them in our minds. We can feel all the subtleties of their emotions, almost as if we know what they’re thinking. It’s a wonderful thing, Allandra, to be able to connect with another living being in that way.”

“Is it,” I said flatly. It wasn’t a sentiment I could agree with. There were a handful of times when I’d been grateful for my connection to other minds, but for most of my life it had been an oppressive and unrelieved nightmare.

Kijana laughed. “I know they have a bad reputation, but they’re really quite friendly. They’re very interested in you.” She sounded surprised.

My pulse quickened. “Is that normal?”

“Oh yes, all strangers are of interest, but they’re unusually curious about you. I’ve never seen them so active as a group. They’re generally very quiet about now. They only start reaching out around darkmoon.” She threw me a quick sideways glance. “It’s almost as if… but you can’t have any aptitude, can you?”

“Oh, but she could.” I almost jumped in shock. Chendria had crept up behind me. “She refused to test for aptitude.”

“I had a bad experience with them as a child.” My stock excuse. It had an odd effect, though, for all the things in their holes reacted. Some mental state, for want of a better description, passed through every one of them. I couldn’t tell what feeling it represented, but in humans I would have called it a shiver or a gasp, some instinctive response, quickly over.

All the women cried out in surprise. Chendria laughed, though. “Aha! Caught you out, Allandra. You can’t lie in here. They know.”

Well. That was interesting. In all my reading, I’d never come across that aspect of flicker behaviour before. “Is that why you wanted me to come into the mine? So you could catch me in a lie?”

That made her laugh even more. It was a hard, unpleasant sound, like a seal honking for a mate. “It adds to the entertainment, doesn’t it, m’dear? Petreon suggested it, actually. He’s the one who knew you’d refused. He’s had all your details from Crenton.” Well, that wouldn’t help him. They knew nothing of me there, not even my real name. “He wants me to ask you another question. He’d like to know if you’re really Akk’ashara.”

“What does it matter?” I snapped. “Aren’t we supposed to leave our past behind when we come here?”

And with that, I stormed back to the ramp. I couldn’t get out of that cave quickly enough.

 

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