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CHAPTER NINETEEN

Dergal Starg waved at the bartender.


"Give me another, Tarl. Nothing better to do."


It was the fifth time he'd said that, and Tarl was probably getting tired of hearing it. Not that the bartender was going to say anything.


Ownership of the Nashtor mines had been disputed between three different city-states right up until they and the armies they'd kept glowering at one another might actually have been some use. Right up until the Boman had smashed two of the city-states into rubble and cut the mines off from K'Vaern's Cove, the only one of the three which had ever been worth a solitary damn. But none of those cities had ever believed they could control Nashtor, whoever might officially claim ownership. Those mines were the province of one Dergal Starg. Merchants could merch, warriors could war. But it took a by-the-gods miner to mine, and in all the lands of the Chasten and Tam, in all the Nashtor Hills, there was no miner to match Dergal Starg.


Which was what made the present situation so bitterly ironic, of course. Because what was needed right now was one of those iron-head Northern war princes. Or a K'Vaernian guardsman. Or even an idiotic war priest from Diaspra. Because no matter how good a miner you were, a mine without markets was just a hole in the ground that you poured money into.


Sure, a few hundred miners and a group of engineers had been able to create defenses the Boman avoided. Sure, they were able to keep mining, even with the occasional probing foray by the barbarians. But even though the sounds of the surrounding mines and smelters continued to echo through the tavern, they weren't quite right. At any other time, he would have been down Shaft Five in a heartbeat, for example. He could tell the lazy bastards were lying down on the job down there, but what was the point of working yourself to death, of building inventories, when there were no buyers?


There was none, of course, but Dergal Starg still ran the mines and smelters. And the miners were, by the gods, going to keep on mining right until the mines ran out of food, new picks, and the thousand and one other things they got from the stupid, cheating merchants.


And the bartenders were, by the gods, going to tend, which was why he glared at Tarl when his mug of wine wasn't immediately refilled. But then he noticed that the bartender was staring over his shoulder with wide eyes and all four hands thrown outward in a gesture of surprise.


Starg turned around to see what the nincompoop was staring at, and froze. The crew which had just walked under the roof of the wall-less structure was a flatly amazing sight, and not just because the mines were sealed off from everyone else in the entire world by the Boman, yet he'd never laid eyes on a single one of them before.


Four of them were obviously Northerner iron heads, two of them wearing some of the nicest ironwork it had ever been his pleasure to admire. The fluting on one of the cuirasses followed the new trend coming out of K'Vaern, picked up apparently from some outlandish place which had never heard of steel on steel. No doubt it reduced the weight of the armor by a good bit, but traditionalists—and Starg, by the gods, put himself in that category—thought it was likely to backfire. The damned stuff was bound to catch the point of a weapon or crack under any heavy pounding, although he had to admit that this armor was as hacked about as any he'd ever seen, and it seemed to have stood the test well. From the look of the wearer, it would probably be a better idea not to make any sarcastic remarks about it, either.


But the ironmongery, however impressive, wasn't the most interesting thing about the group. One of the iron heads' companions was a lightly armed, gods-be-damned priest. One of the damned water boys, no less, unless he was mistaken, and a senior one by his gear. Starg had seen a couple of water boy missionaries in his time, but most of them had been youngsters. This fellow was anything but, and the wrench he wore on the golden chain about his neck made him an artisan priest. Artisan priests were like legends; you never saw one outside Diaspra. But that still wasn't the most interesting thing about the group—that had to be the basik in the middle.


It couldn't be an actual basik. For one thing, it was too gods-be-damned big, but it sure as the gods looked like a basik. No horns, no claws, no armor—just soft and pink all over. Well, it was wearing some sort of covering, and its skin had an ugly dry look, like a feck-beast's. But other than that . . . and the helmet . . . it certainly looked like a basik.


The iron head in the fluted cuirass held out one hand, palm up to indicate friendship.


"You are Dergal Starg?" he asked.


"Yeah," the miner snarled. "Who by the gods wants to know?"


"Ah," the Northerner said with a weird facial grimace that exposed his teeth. "The famous Starg personality. Let me introduce myself. I'm Rastar Komas Ta'Norton, Prince of Therdan. King, I suppose now. I believe you once met my uncle under better circumstances."


Starg slumped suddenly, even his belligerence temporarily muted. Kantar T'Norl had been one of the only damned outsiders who hadn't been totally, by the gods, idiotic. Unlike all too many others, Kantar had always been a voice of reason in the region.


"I'm sorry, Rastar Komas Ta'Norton. I shouldn't have been so abrupt. The loss of your uncle was a terrible blow to the Valley of the Tam."


"He died as well as could be permitted," the Northern prince said, "leading a charge to cover our retreat. We were able to get many of the women and children out of Therdan and Sheffan because of his sacrifice and the willing sacrifice of his house warriors."


"It's still a great loss," the miner growled, taking a sip from his now refilled mug.


"Yes, and hardly the way he would have preferred to leave us," the prince agreed with another of those odd grimaces. "I suspect that he would have preferred drowning in a wine vat," he said, and Starg grunted in laughter for the first time.


"Yes, he was a bit of a drinker. It's a recent vice on my own part, of course."


"Not according to my uncle," Rastar disagreed. "He said you could drink a pagee under the table."


"High praise, indeed," Starg said. "And now that we've covered the pleasantries, where did you come from? The trails are swarming with Boman."


"The ones to the north may be," the thing that looked like a basik said, "but the ones to the south are . . . clearer."


"Who's the basik?" Starg asked, gesturing at the odd creature.


"This is Captain Armand Pahner of the Empress' Own," Rastar said with yet another of those odd grimaces. "And calling him a basik to his face could be a mistake of cosmic proportions. A brief mistake."


"Captain Pahner and his 'Imperial Marines' are the reason that there no longer are any Boman to the south," the cleric put in, and extended one palm-up true-hand of his own in greeting. "Rus From, at your service," he said, administering the mining engineer's second intense shock of the day.


"The Rus From? The Rus From who created the two-cycle pump system? The secondary aortal injector? The Rus From who designed the God's Lake runoff entrapment system? That was a thing of beauty! I used a modification of it in our Number Nine shaft trap."


"Um," the momentarily nonplused cleric said. Then, "Yes, I suppose that was I."


"So you came up from the south?" Starg asked. "What happened to the Boman?"


"Wespar, actually," Rastar said, and clapped hands in a shrug. "We killed them."


"That's a somewhat simplistic explanation," From noted reprovingly.


"Accurate, nonetheless," Rastar argued. "They don't have enough left to burn their dead."


"They don't burn them, anyway," Starg said distastefully. "They bury them."


"True," From said. "A terrible use of land. Can you imagine what would happen if everyone buried their dead? Before long, all the dry land would be overrun with dead bodies!"


"Could we debate social customs at some other time?" the maybe-not-basik asked with a grimace which, allowing for the differences in shape and form, was remarkably like the one Rastar had been making, and Starg finally remembered where he'd seen it before. It was the exact expression a basik made when you had it cornered and were just about to club it. Like it was trying to talk you out of it or something.


"Indeed," Rus From said. "We brought a caravan through with us. It includes some of the items you ordered from the merchants of Diaspra before the Boman closed the roads."


"We appreciated that last shipment of pig iron, by the way," the maybe-not-basik said. "It would have been tough to do everything we had to without it."


"Yeah, well, normally we do most of our trading with K'Vaern's Cove," Starg said. "But they were cut off by then. We just had to hope a caravan would make it back from Diaspra, instead."


"And indeed it did," From said. "I'm afraid that few of the mining implements you ordered are included, however. Most of the ones that were complete were converted into weapons. We do have a goodly load of food and wines, spices, and so forth, though."


"That's all well and good," Starg protested. "But we're going to need those tools soon."


"And they'll be completed in time," From said dryly. "With all the weapons we recovered from the Wespar, there's much more than sufficient iron to replace the material we commandeered."


"And with any luck, we'll be able to get the Boman's attention so centered on us that they won't be a problem between here and K'Vaern's Cove much longer, either," Rastar added. "There were none on the south side of the hills. Where are they?"


"Mostly still gorging on the corpse of Sindi," Starg said. "But there are many bands just wandering around, some of them quite large. You'll find it difficult to pass through to the Cove, if that's your target."


"Oh, I don't know about that," said the maybe-not-basik. "I think we might just give them pause."


"You see," Rastar said, "we're not exactly a caravan."


* * *


The forces from Diaspra sprawled everywhere around the mines. Most of them were inside the hasty walls the miners had thrown up against the Boman under Starg's direction. Those of them who were not, lightly armored figures carrying incredibly long spears or lances, were busy erecting another camp adjacent to the mining area. They dug with incredible energy and precision, as if they'd been doing it their entire lives.


"What, by all the gods, is this?" Starg asked, rubbing a horn furiously.


"Well," the maybe-not-basik, Pahner, said, "I'm afraid we weren't quite sure who held the mines, so we took the liberty of securing your guards until we were sure. They're unharmed," the not-basik added hastily.


"So you just snuck in and took over?" the mine manager demanded, wondering whether he was angrier at the newcomers or at the guards who were supposed to have prevented such things from happening.


"It's . . . something of a specialty of ours," the not-basik said with another of those strange grimaces.


"They did it to us once," Rastar confirmed with a weird move of both shoulder sets.


"So now what?" Starg asked. "You can't do any good here; the Boman just avoid us."


"We may leave a few groups of our soldiers with you," Rus From replied. "Some of our Diasprans haven't taken as well to conditions on the march as they thought they might. That doesn't make them poor soldiers, though, and they can be helpful training and supporting your miners. The rest of us are going to K'Vaern's Cove."


"You'll never make it," the mine manager warned. "You might have made it on a straight shot from the south, but it's different between here and the Cove."


"Yes, it is," the not-basik agreed with one of those weird grimaces. Suddenly, he looked much less like a basik than an atul. A hungry atul. "There's a road."


"We'll be moving very fast," Rastar added. "You might have noticed that we have a large number of turom and civan along with the pagee. The humans have shown us that an infantry force can move much faster than we ever believed possible if the spear-carriers take occasional rests by holding onto the packs of the turom and civan. Also, many of them, and all our wounded, ride on the pagee. I wouldn't have believed it before they proved it, but we can travel nearly as fast as civan cavalry."


"We should get through without problems as long as we can avoid their main force," the "human" noted. "You said that they're in and around Sindi. I've seen that on a map, and it's well out of the way of the direct route to K'Vaern's Cove. How sure are you of their location, and where do you get your information?"


"Some woodsmen still move among the Boman," Starg replied. "Charcoal burners and the like who simply give them whatever they want and survive as best they can. We help them out with whatever we can spare, and in return they keep us fairly well informed on where the barbs are and what they're up to. Also, Sindi is the largest and richest city they've conquered. They aren't done looting it even yet."


The humans shared a look with the Northern prince, but Rastar seemed to agree.


"They would know, Armand," the Northerner said. "The woods are filled with half-wild workers, and I doubt that they'd care much for the Boman. Their lives are never easy, but they must be truly impossible in the midst of this invasion."


"Then we need to factor them into our next move," said the not-basik, Pahner. "Intelligence cuts two ways."


"What?" Starg asked. "They're not particularly smart—"


"He means that they could talk to the Boman as well as to you," Rastar translated. "It's a human term meaning all that you know about your enemy."


"We don't want our axis of advance communicated to the Boman," Pahner added.


"I doubt that they'll be talking to the Boman," Rastar demurred. "They're insular even under normal conditions, and I'm sure they're staying as far away from the invaders as they can."


"That's truth," Starg said. "We've traded tools and weapons to them for food and other supplies. Otherwise, they'd have nothing to do with us, either."


"Tools," Pahner said. "That we're not in need of. But how much refined iron do you have on-site?"


"Why?" Starg asked suspiciously.


"Because we're taking it all with us to K'Vaern," Pahner said, looking out over the building Diaspran camp. "K'Vaern's Cove will need it if they're going to survive, and we need them happy with us. It's why we came this way, really."


"Oh, you are, are you?" Starg said angrily. "Just how are you going to pay for it? It's not like you even brought all that was already owed!"


The not-basik's head turned towards Starg like a machine. The human was scarcely half the miner's size, and Starg had been in more fights as a youngster than his old bones cared to remember. But at that moment, he was as sure as the gods had made him that he did not want to test the human commander.


"Worry not," Rus From said calmly. "I'll guarantee payment for the material from the temple."


"Oh," Starg said, his hostility disappearing abruptly. "In that case, I suppose it will be all right. And in answer to your question, there are several tons waiting to go. We've been smelting most of the time."


"Pig iron, or wrought?" Rastar asked.


"Pig," the miner said with a shrug. "I've got a puddling forge, but I don't have the charcoal to make it worthwhile to run it."


"We can make steel from this?" Pahner asked. "That's important."


"You can," Starg said shortly. "At least they can in K'Vaern's Cove . . . if you get it there."


"Great," Pahner said, nodding as he slipped a slice of bisti root into his mouth. "Give him a chit or whatever, Rus, and let's get loading. I want to be able to pull right out in the morning."


* * *


Dergal Starg stood watching the receding column in the morning light. The humans and half the civan cavalry had left earlier to sweep the path of the caravan, and about a third of the "pikemen" were holding onto straps dangling from the pack turom and civan. The rest were spread out to either side and in front, screening the caravan as it headed for the broad, stone road to K'Vaern's Cove.


The head of the miner guard force walked up to Starg as he stood by the rough rock wall guarding the entrance to the mine.


"I'm sorry about yesterday, Dergal. We just weren't vigilant enough. It won't happen again."


"Hmmm?" the manager said, then shook himself. "Oh, don't worry about that, T'an—it's the least of our worries. I just got scammed by a human who spent half his time talking about pits, or pocks, or something. He also taught me an interesting game of chance, and I now owe him about four days' output. In addition to that, we've just sent all the metal we've processed since the invasion into the very midst of the Boman solely on a promise of payment from a priest who, I have since discovered, left home under . . . less than auspicious circumstances. And we can only collect it if we manage to get word back to Diaspra that they owe it to us. And if a caravan makes it back through to us, of course."


"Oh," said T'an. Then, "This isn't good, is it?"


"By the gods, I don't know," Starg said, with a grunt of humor. "But I think it's grand."


* * *


"Is Gratar going to pay?" Pahner asked. "We would've gone ahead and loaded the iron whether he would or not, but will he?"


"Yes," From said. "He will, and he'll know that I knew that he would. I regard it as it is— What's that phrase you humans use? 'A parting shot'?"


"And a nice one, despite Poertena's best efforts," the Marine agreed.


"Yes, it is," the priest said with a note of obvious satisfaction as he visualized the priest-king's reaction to the bill Dergal Starg was about to present to him. "But what matters is that we have the iron, which should be well-received in K'Vaern's Cove. Now all we have to do is get through with it."


"Oh, we'll get through," Pahner said. "Even if I've got to break out the armor, we'll get through. It's after we get through that it gets interesting."


 


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