Authors: Gail Z. Martin
The Ascendant Kingdoms Saga
Gail Z. Martin
In accordance with the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, the scanning, uploading, and electronic sharing of any part of this book without the permission of the publisher constitute unlawful piracy and theft of the author's intellectual property. If you would like to use material from the book (other than for review purposes), prior written permission must be obtained by contacting the publisher at permission[email protected]. Thank you for your support of the author's rights.
“Not bad enough that it's so cold it would freeze the nuts off a wolf,” Piran Rowse grumbled. “Not bad enough that we've got these bloody shackles. Does it have to be dark for half the year, too?”
Blaine McFaddenâMick to his fellow inmatesâgrunted in reply. “That's the point, Piran,” he said. “If you recall, we were exiled because they weren't fond of us.”
Piran's curses were spectacularly creative. “I seem to remember exile was supposed to be better than a noose. Some days, I'm not sure about that.”
It was up for argument whether it was colder and darker outside Velant's ruby mines or down in their depths.
At least in the mines
, Blaine thought,
there isn't the constant, cutting wind, or the wild bears and wolves.
Predators of another type ruled the deep places.
The crack of a whip stung Blaine's shoulder. “Stop talking and keep digging!” The guard glared at Piran and Blaine as if he were hoping they would be foolhardy enough to reply.
Piran held his tongue until the guard was out of earshot, and then began a muttered litany of expletives that was remarkable even for him. “Shut up, Piran,” Blaine said. “For some reason, you mouth off and I feel the lash for it.”
Piran shot him a crooked smile. “Just one of my many talents.”
Chok the guard moved on, only to stop several paces farther down the tunnel to lash another prisoner who was not mining the rubies quickly enough, though Blaine suspected the inmate was nearly to his breaking point. Velant was Donderath's garbage heap, its dumping ground for people it considered useless for anything except brutal labor. The prisoner went down with a whimper. Chok cracked him over the head with his staff for good measure, a sickening muted thud. This time, the prisoner fell silent. Most of the Velant guards were dangerous. Some were worse than others. Chok was one of the monsters.
“You won't get out of here that easily,” Piran said, with a nod toward their unfortunate fellow convict. “If anyone kills you up here, it's likely to be Prokief himself.”
“Compared to you, who've annoyed the shit out of nearly everyone, so you've got a line waiting to do you in,” Blaine replied, but his grin took the sting from his words.
If I had to be shackled at the ankle to a fellow prisoner, there would be worse partners than Piran
, Blaine thought. They had been paired by the guards because they were relatively equal in their reach and stamina, meaning they could swing their pickaxes and sledgehammers efficiently without knocking each other off balance, and march in and out of the mine without tripping each other.
Three months ago, Blaine had been a free man, the son of a down-at-the-heels noble back in Donderath. But when his father, Lord Ian McFadden, dishonored Blaine's sister, Mari, Blaine killed him in a cold rage born of years of abuse. Blaine had expected to hang for his crime. But King Merrill knew of Ian's penchant for violence, and he had granted Blaine the âmercy' of exile, to the arctic wilds of Velant on the island of Edgeland at the top of the world.
Even now, Blaine felt no remorse, though he often thought that a quick death at the end of a noose would have been preferable to the prospect of spending the rest of his natural life in a frozen wasteland under the thumb of Commander Prokief and his vicious guards.
“Just three years,” Blaine said. “We only have to survive three years before we can get out of this godsforsaken pit and earn our Tickets.”
Piran barked a sharp, bitter laugh. “Keep on believing that, mate, if it gets you through the night. You know how many convicts survive three years? Not many. Not bloody many at all.” Tickets of Leave were granted to convicts who served their first three years without further crimes. It meant they became colonists instead of inmates, but no one returned home, not even the soldiers, who were as much prisoners as their charges.
Despite the persistent cold, mining was hard work, and sweat beaded Blaine's forehead, running in rivulets down his grit-streaked face. Although he had done physical labor on his father's estate, nothing had prepared him for the relentless hard work demanded from Velant's inmates. Prokief made it clear that his first priority was making a profit for the homeland with rubies they mined and the herring fished out of the bay by the colony's small fleet of boats. Whether or not the inmates survived the effort was of little consequence to Prokief or anyone else.
Piran had started singing a popular tavern song, making up additional verses that were as obscene as they were amusing. The guard glowered but said nothing, since both Blaine and Piran swung their pickaxes in time to the off-key melody.
“Better get those rock chunks broken up smaller than that, or there'll be grief,” Blaine advised the third prisoner in their shackled trio. Ford nodded, too winded to speak. Ford stood a head shorter than Blaine, with the slight build of a boy not yet a man. Only fourteen years old, he had been exiled for stealing, not uncommon when a thief made the mistake of pickpocketing a powerful victim.
Too late. “What kind of rubbish work is this?” Chok said as he made another pass down the long mining tunnel. He kicked at Ford's rock pile, scattering the pieces. “Pick those up.”
Ford bent to comply. The guard brought his knee up into the boy's face, and Blaine heard a snap as Ford's nose broke. “Now look at the mess,” the guard chided as blood flowed down Ford's face. “Someone's gonna have to wash that blood off the nuggets. Who's gonna do that? Huh?”
Ford snuffled a reply, doing his best to stoically bear the pain and humiliation. Malice shone in the guard's eyes. Piran had a reputation for a hot temper, and the branded âM' on Blaine's forearm that marked him as a murderer gave the guards pause. But Ford was easy prey.
“I asked you a question!” the guard thundered at Ford, and slapped him hard across the face. “Well?”
“Me, sir,” Ford stammered, scrambling to gather the blood-spattered ruby nuggets.
The guard's foot shot out, catching Ford in the stomach. The boy crumpled with a muted “
“On your feet, boy!” the guard snapped. “Lazy ass. Get up before I drag you up by your hair!” He gave another savage kick, and Ford's body jerked with the force of the blow.
Blaine's temper was at the breaking point, and he knew from Piran's stance that his partner was already past that. With barely a glance between them, Blaine and Piran moved at the same instant, closing in on the guard from both sides.
“Leave the boy alone,” Piran growled, landing a right hook that connected with the guard's jaw hard enough to break bones, as his pickax swung low, busting the man's ankle. Blaine had already learned how to use the chain of his shackle to trip an attacker, and he swung one foot in an arc and then jerked the chain back hard, pulling the guard's good leg out from under him. The soldier fell and Blaine swung his sledgehammer into the guard's shoulder with a satisfying crack.
“Don't think you'll be busting up any children for a while,” Piran gloated. “And it's a shame about your jaw, but I don't think you'll be telling the commander any tales until it heals up.” The guard sputtered angrily, sending a spray of blood flying. “Not that you'll be much good for anything with a bum shoulder and a bad leg, but the healers might fix you up enough to clean out the latrines.”
Blaine knelt next to Ford. “Come on,” he said. “Get up. We'll pay Raka for what we've done.” But Ford's breathing was shallow and uneven, and he was moaning in pain.
That last kick hit him hard. Maybe hard enough to break something inside. Damn.
Blaine looked up at Piran. “Got any other bright ideas?” he asked, glancing at the guard, who was trying to grab at Piran with his good hand. Piran stayed just out of reach.
“Not really,” Piran replied. “But he had it coming. And it's not like we were going to get out early for good behavior.”
Running footsteps echoed in the rock tunnels. Blaine heard guards shouting as they barged their way through the miners, alerted if not by the sound of the fight itself then by one of Prokief's many informants among the prisoners.
“Get him up!” a guard ordered, regarding Ford with disdain. “Or we'll haul him up ourselves.” Blaine muttered an apology as he lifted Ford as gently as he could, wincing as the young man cried out in pain and doubled over.
“Rowse! Should have figured you were causing trouble. Tell your tale to the commander,” the second guard said. “Out with you.”
Two more of Prokief's soldiers came to help the downed guard, who let out a bleat of pain as one of them jostled his broken shoulder.
“Not so tough now,” Piran mocked, then cursed as one of the soldiers gave him a shove toward the mine exit hard enough to drag Blaine off balance.
“Shut up, Piran,” Blaine muttered. But it was far too late for that to matter. Fights between the convicts and the guards were common, and when the guards wonâwhich was oftenâthe matter went unnoticed by the prison's commander, even when convicts turned up dead. Blaine was under no illusion that their transgression would go unpunished, especially since Velant's commander seemed to have taken a particular, personal dislike for both Blaine and Piran.
Ford was barely conscious as they made their way up the narrow rock tunnels toward the mine entrance. Blaine was supporting most of the boy's weight. Normally, a healer could put an injury right most of the time. But Prokief rarely wasted healers on convicts, unless he was short on labor for a needed task. Blaine doubted that the little bit of healing magic and hedge witch cures the prisoners provided for each other could save Ford if the guard's attack had damaged his innards. Then again, that particular guard wouldn't be damaging anyone else for a long while. The satisfaction of that knowledge was almost enough to temper Blaine's fear of the punishment that awaited him. Almost.
Other prisoners glanced up as the guards hustled them out of the mine. Some gave bored stares, and Blaine guessed they were glad that this time, the guards were focused on someone other than them. Others eyed them with anger, certain that Blaine and Piran's misdeeds would lead to harsher conditions for all of them.
A few looked at them with grudging respect. It was rare to win against the guards, all the sweeter for being a fleeting victory. But if the time ever came that Prokief's warden mages lost their ability to enforce the commander's harsh discipline, Blaine doubted there were enough guards to hold off the inmates' pent-up rage.
A blast of frigid air hit them as they stepped out into the perpetual twilight of the Long Dark, the half of the year when the sun barely rose above the horizon. Edgeland's temperatures barely rose enough during the âsummer' months to enable the colonists and inmates to go outside without heavy cloaks and hats. The dark winter months felt interminable, and the temperatures plunged to bone-chilling cold that even the thickest furs would not warm.
Piran continued to hum the bawdy tavern song, a small show of defiance. Still, Blaine could see a glint of fear in Piran's eyes. Blaine felt his gut tighten at the prospect of Prokief's revenge. They might have saved Ford, or perhaps merely avenged him, but there was a good chance that they would die for their efforts.
“Unlock the boy,” one of the guards ordered. “Take him back to the barracks,” he said to two of the other guards. It would be useless to request a healer, since the guards would only laugh. Maybe one of Blaine's barracks mates could help Ford, or at least ease his passing if there was naught that could be healed.
“You two aren't getting off that easy,” the guard gloated, as Ford was dragged away, hanging limply between the two soldiers.
“Is the commander having a dull day?” Piran asked cheekily. “No small children to drown? All out of animals to torture? Did the Butcher of Breseshwa get bored?” Prokief had commanded an army that turned the tide at Breseshwa, a border city where there had been an uprising ten years prior. When the fighting was done, the rebels were dead, and so was every man, woman, child, and animal in Breseshwa. King Merrill had âawarded' Prokief his position as warden of Velant, recognizing that his bloodthirsty battle tactics made him too much of a monster for a kingdom at peace.
“Shut up, Piran,” Blaine muttered, but it was far too late now.
Commander Prokief's headquarters was squat and ugly. Unlike most of the buildings in the prison camp, the commander's building was made from hewn rock. Convicts still whispered about the number of men who had died quarrying the stone and hauling it into place. The prisoners' barracks, the laundry, the storage barns, and the camp's other buildings were made mostly of wood, but Prokief's building was his own personal fortress, against the elements and the inmates.
“I hear the commander's waiting for you,” one of the guards said, with a nasty chuckle. Few prisoners who attracted Prokief's personal attention were seen again.
“If we'd have known that, we'd have dressed better,” Piran said. Blaine elbowed him, but Piran only grinned more broadly.
The commander's headquarters was the anchor for King Merrill's authority on Edgeland's godsforsaken ice. The royal seal was painted over the doorway into the sentencing chamber. A pennant with the insignia of the king's army hung down one side of the entranceway, and a battle flag from Prokief's former unit graced the other side. The two guardsmen at the doors wore uniforms that were reminiscent of the king's guards back at Quillarth Castle, though Blaine knew that even the soldiers assigned to Velant had been given the choice between exile and death for their crimes.
Even the tall, wide wooden doors appeared to have been designed to intimidate, carved with the seals of the noble houses of Donderath. There, near the bottom, was his own family crest, the mark of the House McFadden, lords of Glenreith, for all the good it would do him. Blaine had left that history, that identity, behind when the convict ship left Castle Reach. The king had stripped him of his title. He had disavowed his heritage. Here, he was just Mick.
Probably for the best. Prokief would probably enjoy slapping me down even more if he knew who I used to be.