First Half Moon (on or about Nuwmont 10-13, 998AC)
“This will never work,” Ana muttered, tugging the tattered cloak tighter about her shoulders.
“It’ll work,” Gilliam said. “It’ll work better if you slouch more.”
“And scratch,” Demarra said. She brought her hand up, clad in a too-big leather glove, and worked at the back of her hood.
“Well at least with that, there is no need for deception,” the young cleric said. “Flame alone knows how many different kinds of vermin those brigands left behind in these cloaks.”
We trooped along with Grellk’s mercenaries, garbed in spare, ragged and patched cloaks, voluminous hoods pulled up, hiding most of our features.
“Make sure yer Syharwehr produces more of those platinums at the first checkpoint, and things’ll work out just fine enough,” the dwarf growled. “And you,” he said, pointing a thick finger at Ana. “Just keep those pretty blues pointed at yer boots. Get us into a deeper pit than we’re already headed into, if the Brass see those. And keep that gob shut.”
The Darra stifled a chuckle with her borrowed glove. Ana looked like she was about to say something, but instead diverted her gaze, her features lost beneath the hood’s shadows.
“Its another fifty fer each ‘please,’ and ‘may I,’” Grellk said with a sharp-toothed smile.
“You wish to renegotiate our pact?” Silva asked.
The dwarf’s smile vanished, and he swallowed audibly. He didn’t say another word until we trooped up to the sally port to the side of the great iron-plated rail-carriage gates, and then it was a hushed and gravelly exchange with a black-bearded dwarf in the familiar brass-scaled armor of the troops of this realm’s ‘Karrnath.’
My knowledge of the dwarven language is spotty, but I knew that title to be a mix of word-roots that translated, very roughly in the Common, to something like “Death-Cutter.” Again, I wished for the company of the dwarf Durin, who I’m sure could have filled two skeins with elaboration on the various nuances of this strange title.
Coins changed hands, and it was difficult not to hurry through the broad doorway that the guard opened up for us. His dark-eyed gaze was directed into the pouch in his gloved hand, his attention fixed on counting the coins therein. Not even Ana’s exaggerated shuffle drew so much as a sideways glance.
Passing down a corridor wide enough for three to walk abreast, we then stepped into a vast, vaulted chamber. At first I thought it another cavern, but a closer look showed the walls to be of crafted and smoothed blocks of the dark granite of the Peaks. Each edge was taller than Varis, fitted with the typical dwarven precision denying even a thumbnail to be slipped between the stones. They sloped gently upward, the peak of the long tunnel-chamber’s ceiling lost amidst smoke barely lit by yellow-orange light from the torches lining the walls.
It was clear the great gates opened into this vast chamber, and three pair of the iron-bound trails ran up the center, flanked by great flagstone platforms that made the activity of the marketplace seem a ghost town in comparison.
It was as if the merchant traffic of the ports of Specularum or Ierendi city were given iron wheels. The iron carriage upon which we’d hitched a ride, with its five containers trailing behind the one in which we stayed was apparently short for its kind. Several sat at idle, lined up one after the other, a dozen large cargo holds in length. What looked to be siege towers turned out to be long swing-arms, fitted with block-and-tackle, great iron chains being used to hoist entire containers from the backs of what turned out to be long flat wheeled platforms.
Grellk snorted. “Can’t wait to see yer faces when we reach Kor-Karrest.” He snorted again, and rolled a shoulder forward — and we had to move on.
I will spare you the details of another two and a half days’ journey in another of the great rolling containers. At each checkpoint, it seemed we nearly depleted Silva’s pouch of its coinage, and Aurora grumbled of highwaymen and the hangman’s price. Still, it enabled us to pass the miles if not undetected, at least unmolested by the troops of the Karrnath.
The middle of the second day brought us a welcome change — sunlight, and the taste of water in the air, as we passed through another vast cavern, the top lost amidst clouds and the heavy mist from a waterfall that plunged from someplace well above, if not open to the sun, then exposed to it.
“The Throat,” Grellk explained. “Runoff from the winter’s melt. Most of the fields below will probably flood, with the heavy snows that came down so early this year.”
By “below,” Grellk meant the lands along the shore of a lake that spanned most of the width of the great chamber. Our iron carriage rumbled and clattered along a long, raised bridge of wood and iron and stone, one of three that spanned the vast lake. A great many farms spread along the shores, and shimmering canals carried water further from the lake, to irrigate farms further from the edge of the water. I could even see, here and there, what looked to be true orchards, rather than forests of the seemingly endless fungi.
A few hours later, we passed a low stone building, a huge brass wheel sprouting from its side. The wheel was wide, and the outer edge lined with scoops, or paddles, endlessly pushing water down a long reservoir, along which the iron-spanned trackway ran parallel.
Grellk laughed when I asked him about it.
“Resorvoir? Nay, that’s the Emperor’s Aqueduct. Runs all the way to Kor-Karrest. Probably all the way to His Imperial Majesty’s water closet, for all I know.”
We were less than a half day from this ‘Kor-Karrest’ when Aurora and Silva both sat up straighter, sniffed the air a couple times, and exchanged worried glances.
“What is it?” Ana asked. She sniffed, too, her nose wrinkling slightly. Varis and Gilliam both reached for their swords, but the shrike shook her head.
“This is no danger you can fight with a sword,” she said.
The air had begun to taste… flat. Ashen.
“No, do not breathe too deeply,” Aurora warned. “If you must, do so through a water or wine-soaked kerchief.”
“You mean that smell isn’t Gilliam?” Demarra asked, through the folds of her sleeve.
Silva looked the Darra over, and pointed to her own wrists. “H’arhi-na.”
“You must remove any of those bangles that are made of gold,” Aurora translated. “Wrap them, in leathers if you have it, or better yet, a wooden box.”
Demarra looked between the twins, but when she saw they were not smirking in the least, began picking through the tangle of bracelets, wristlets, and accompanying charms, working the golden ones free. Sera had spare leather pouch, which she lent the Darra.