Her smile cut short, as the clattering grind from below climbed to a grating shriek. The brass bell in a casing above the doors on either side of the slat-sided hall began to ring. I could hear other, similar bells sounding outside our hall.
Sera fell against me, and I fell back as well. Gilliam tumbled from his seat among several sacks, rolling away as more of them rolled from the haphazard pile in the corner.
Silva gave a yelp, that Aurora stifled as she closed her arms around the girl’s shoulders. Golden eyes flashed as the shrike glanced from corner to corner, looking for potential threats. Varis kept himself on his feet by clutching at one of the posts holding up the ceiling.
Ana spat a curse as she nearly lost her seat atop a crate. Demarra had been leaning against the door frame, and she merely spread her arms slightly for balance. One hand darted to the hilt of the knife tucked into her belt sash as a clamor arose from the other side of the door.
There was the heavy scrape of an iron bolt against a catch, and the door opened. A gray-haired head poked through the opening, not much higher than the darra’s waist. Dark eyes nearly hidden beneath bushy gray brows scanned over us. A thick, tusklike mustache quivered beneath a rather bulbous nose as the gnome spoke, his voice not entirely unlike the sound of the door’s bolt:
“Imperials have SarGarr all bottled up. That means inspections. Now, I likes my gold, but even that’s not worth trouble from the Brass.” He spat rather noisily on the floor. “So get off of my hauler before they get here. If they catch you,” he continued, his tone more indicative of a ‘when,’ “we never met. Yes?” He turned his gaze to Silva, who nodded.
“Let it be so,” she said.
The nose bobbed in return. “Right. Now off with you!”
Outside the door was a small balcony, with steps descending along either side. These led to a drop to the tunnel floor perhaps a bit higher than our gnomish custodian, or to a narrow metal walkway which led around the outside of the slat-sided hall. Sure enough, beneath the hall were several large sets of wheels, and beneath them, the metal tracks. Our hall was the last in a line of several of them. It was difficult to say how many more there were, as the tunnel was filled with billowing clouds of steam and smoke from what must have been much larger versions of the boiling-water contraptions that turned the wheels. Between the swinging lanterns, and the flickering light from more of the glowing-filaments suspended within the glass bulbs bolted to either side of the tunnel support beams, and the shouting of the gnomish crew members, the whole scene was chaotic mess.
All of that made it quite easy for the all of us to slip across the tracks, and into one of the many shadowed nooks along the far wall of the tunnel. A joining of hands, a whispered word from Silva, and a tingling shock later, the princess had us enveloped in a hazy color-leeching, light-bending veil. We hurried through the shadows, only slowing when we had to cross a stretch of open, lighted tunnel beneath one of the filament bowls.
There were at least two more gnomish haulers on the tracks ahead, their crews similarly shouting back and forth and waving lanterns this way and that.
We were perhaps halfway down the length of the second hauler’s chain of wheeled storage halls when the first stalls began to appear from the haze and steam enveloping the tunnel. The further we progressed, the more of them appeared, at first simply tucked off to the side of the tunnel, then more and more crowding along narrow, haphazard lanes barely wide enough for three to walk abreast.
Most were lit by oil lamps, the yellowed light spilling over cloth-lined booths showing wares of one kind or another, from trinkets, jewelry, and carvings to gears and tubes of copper, brass and iron. Other, larger booths held larger collections of tubing and intricate assemblies of what I assumed were spare parts for haulers or the great boiler-engines that pulled them. Here and there were stalls selling foods, some with open fire pits where various meats turned on spits. Another stall held something hissing and sizzling on a grating over red-hot coals. The largest crowds gathered around the bread makers’ stalls.
Gomes and dwarves made up the majority of the crowd, dressed in a fashion similar to the few gnomish halter crew members I’d seen before we were shooed away from the machine: wide-brimmed helmets, mail beard-guards draped to one side, those beards plaited and tucked into wide belts. Many wore leather coats over the canvas coveralls, garments that looked to be tunic and breeches sewn all together into one piece, a fashion I’d never seen before or since.
Sprinkled throughout the crowd were figures perhaps a head or head-and-shoulders taller than the dwarves, very nearly Gilliam’s height, and still others that were even taller than Varis. A group of them passed by our location, and Aurora had to lay a hand over Gilliam’s, as he reached for one of his swords— the taller figures were clearly orcish, or had very strong orcish blood: shortened, upturned noses, vaguely pointed ears. The shorter figures I first thought to be merely tall dwarves, until it passed beneath one of the stall lanterns. The shadows fell back from its helm, revealing yellowed, orcish eyes staring from above a scraggly, dark beard from which short tusks protruded. Another, slightly shorter, revealed pointed, yellowed goblin’s teeth as it hissed a laugh at some shared jest.
“What do you make of this, Thorn?” Gilliam asked.
I could only shrug, studying the faces that passed by, taking no notice of us behind Silva’s veil. Dwarves and orcs rubbing shoulders without steel between them was one thing, but shared blood between the two?
What to make of it indeed.