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Old May 3 2008, 08:38 PM   #1
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Default The Case of the Blackmarket Blackrock

The traveller arrived at the Smithcraft Hall on foot, trailed by a well-laden pack beast dragging at its lead rope. For the last few miles he had heard the slow thud – thud of the giant water-driven trip hammers. Now he could see the three large water wheels slowly turning in the water leat which, at this time of year, was fringed with cresses and flags. Plumes of grey smoke rose from the forge chimneys to disperse in the breeze. A couple of the plumes consisted of regular puffs denoting that the forges below them were having the bellows applied with some vigour.

Tying his beast to a handy iron ring by the main entrance, he ventured into the main work area. The noise of the hammers was much louder now: felt rather than heard. A master working at one of the anvils, beating a tongue of fine iron into a blade, looked up as a shadow fell across his work and, with a curt gesture, despatched an apprentice towards the stranger. The apprentice led him back outside, removed a small roll of soft knitting from each ear, and smiled at him.

“Nice day Sir. You have business with us?”

“I hope to. I have a trial load of high quality blackrock to sell.”

“I’ll ask my Master to have a word with you when he’s finished the blade. He’s only got one more fold-and-beat to do on it. If you go to that cot ... (he pointed to one of the horseshoe of cots and small workshops around the main Hall) ... old Auntie will be delighted to serve you with klah, and bread and cheese. Tell her Arnot will be meeting you.”

“Thank you: I’ll do that.”

He was seated on a bench outside the cot door with a beaker of klah half drunk and a mouth full of bread and cheese when Arnot walked round the end of the cot with a chunk of blackrock in his hand. He was scratching at it with a finger nail.

“Is this what you’re offering?”

“If that’s out of my bags: yes.”

“It looks good. Not much sign of shale mixed into it. It should be hot firing. I’ll want to run a test firing with some before I place a regular order. How much have you got?”

“This trip: just the pair of standard sacks. But I can lead more than one beast. I can get you sixteen sacks a seven-day.”

“You’re not far away then?”

“Further than you think. But I have partners. We’d share the runs.”

“How much do you want?”

The traveller named a price somewhat above the usual Minecraft rates and the two bargained for some minutes ending at a price that would allow the Smiths a fraction of a mark savings per sack. The two shook hands. Arnot rounded up a quartet of apprentices and had them carry the two sacks into the main Hall.

“Put them down by my forge!” he yelled after them.

They grinned back at him and staggered on, two to a sack.

“Where are you getting it?”

“Oh; just a new mine up in the ranges. I understand that it’s a good deep vein, almost man height, and easy to get at.”

“For now,” thought Arnot. “Well”, he said out loud, “at sixteen bags a week that’ll be about a sixth of what we use when we’re flat out, but we don’t like to buy from just one mine. So, you’re a useful addition to our suppliers, but you’re not essential. That’s straight talk: so don’t get your hopes up too high. And, I still have to run the test.”

“Naught wrong with straight talk. You won’t be our only outlet. To keep things fair; you’ll be taking about a sixth of the output.”

-o-0-o-

Bronze rider M’tak, wingleader at High Reaches, was oiling his dragon on the ledge outside his weyr when his wing-second reported back to him.

“Two empty cots?"

"You know we were hunting that valley just to the north of Ogren? Both the cot holds in the valley were empty of people; live ones anyway. The upper cot had a pair of dead oldsters. He’s been shot with about six arrows. The old woman had had her throat cut. We reported to the Lady at Ogren Hold but it must have happened at least a sevenday since the attack.”

"I want OUR entire wing here now. I’m going to tell the Weyr Leaders because we’ll probably need every rider we’ve got to check every hold in the area. Let’s get busy. Who said life was boring?”

-o-0-o-

The young runner trotted down the trace, his nose beginning to peel from the summer sun. At least the trace was still green and springy; there was no hint as yet of the parched lack of colour of late summer. Mind you, yesterday’s thunder shower rolling down the valley had probably helped, though the sudden soaking had dampened his enthusiasm slightly, and his clothes temporarily.

This should be a good run: a large loop taking him down to Crom Hall, then the Minecraft Hall. Then he would be travelling down the Dunto River to its junction with the Telgar and up that to get back home. His message pouch was banging his hip and he automatically hitched it round to his back again. If it wanted to bounce, it could do so against his bum. At least that was padded!

-o-0-o-

The Craft-master, sitting in his office in the Minecraft Hall, unrolled the recently delivered message from the Smithcraft Hall.

A new supplier of blackrock?

A new UNLICENCED supplier of blackrock!

Not to be tolerated! Thank you Master Arnot. With your wits you’ll make a fine Craft Master one day.

-o-0-o-

At the sound of returning runner hooves Randeel left his inspection of the cart shed, and its contents, and strode out into the courtyard. The twins were back. It was Maree’s first real ride since ‘the accident’. Here she came back on Merrylegs once more; one of her summer head-dresses floating out behind her.

Filona was also having a first real ride: her first on her new runner, Moonflower, a rather strikingly coloured silver-roan. For the past few months she’d been exercising Merrylegs while her sister recovered and her father scoured most of Ru-atha and Tillek for a replacement for Starflower.

A stable lad came running to hold the reins, and the two girls dismounted.

“Can we have a word Dad?”

“Sure.”

“Indoors?”

“Sure.”

They moved into the kitchen. Jeeno, the twins’ mother, was supervising the production of dinner and chivvying the kitchen women in their work. She crossed at once to her daughters giving them each a hug.

“How did it go? Was the sun too fierce Maree? Are you going to stiffen? Do you need a soak? How did she go Filona?”

“Moonflower went well Ma.”

“The sun was fine,” said Maree across her sister, “nice and warm. It was good to ride again. But we need to talk to Da about something.”

“In his office would be good,” finished Filona.

“Auntie? Take over,” called Jeeno, following the others.

“Well?” asked Randeel as the twins shut the door.

“You remember where we were going? Up to our lookout, across to Tzain’s cot-hold, then a loop round to Barlow’s, and back here along this side of the river through Kan’s and Margat’s. We got as far as Barlow’s and ...” Maree broke off looking at her sister, who picked it up.

“Barlow’s was empty.”

Randeel jumped up. “Empty? He never told me he was leaving! He was settled and doing well.”

“Well the animals were still there: mostly. Most of this year’s young stock has either been run off or slaughtered.”

“There were a couple of herd beasts still in milk standing over their dead young.”

“Had they died, or been killed?”

“Killed.”

“We milked them to relieve them. They were really swollen and sore.”

“We looked in the cot. All the furnishings and utensils were still there, but no people.”

“The food had gone though.”

Randeel sat looking at his daughters for nearly a minute. “Right: Maree, go and fetch Gan from his cot-hold. Filona, you and Sair tack up four runners. They’re all in the near meadow. Get them all in.”

“Saw them on our way in,” called Filona as the twins exited.

“Jeeno: I’ll take Gan, Dhernyron and Sunny. Get the rider flag up. If they fly in before I’m back, tell them what’s happened. I want everyone under cover: doors and windows shuttered as if it’s a fall. I do not want to lose any more of you.”

-o-0-o-

Across in Telgar, a blue’s rider, checking cot-holds, slid into the valley skimming round a shoulder of hill with the rocks a scant few feet away from his wingtip. Fortuitously the sun was more or less behind him. What he, and his dragon saw sent them both between, back into the valley they‘d just left.

*You’d better report that back to Lath,* thought his rider.

*I can ... ... ... ... ... ... and have.*

-o-0-o-

Randeel walked back to his runner. His daughters were right: the cot-hold was empty of humans.

“Gan and Sunny: I want you to stay here and sort out the stock. Work together with one of you on watch at all times, sword out or bow ready. I’ll get some more men up here as soon as I can. Dhernyron? Let’s see if we can track them a ways.”

“Right Randeel,” said Gan, drawing his short sword and flexing his arms. “I fancy a fight. Haven’t had a good one for years.”

“G-a-n!”

“They set off northwards, along that beast track. I can tell that from up here,” put in Dhernyron.

“Come on then.”

The two set off at a brisk trot. The others started shifting stock into the beast house.

A few miles up the track, Dhernyron held up his hand and reined in. Randeel pulled up a few paces behind him. After dismounting Dhernyron cast around while his Holder sat watch with a strung bow resting on his knee.

“They’ve left the trail here and headed up the slope. There’s little point in going further: they’re on bare rock. We’re more likely to be able to stuff a dragon back in its shell than find where they came back off it.”

“We’ll head back then. I can only hope the dragon riders can spot them from the air.”

-o-0-o-

Pik, the Master Miner climbed down stiffly from the High Reaches green dragon, steadied by her rider.

“It’s the sharding cold.” He observed. “It gets to the old joints, you know, but thanks for bringing me.”

“That’s my duty. I’ll await your return.”

A young journey-woman, newly walked judging by the shininess of her badge, was waiting to guide him to the office where Master Arnot and Vill, his Craft Master, were waiting. Klah was offered to the chilled visitor, and accepted, as was a generous helping of wine to follow the klah.

Arnot recounted the encounter, and produced the remainder of the sample he’d bought.

“It’s really top quality, you know: gave a very hot clean fire when I tested it. Of course we don’t know how carefully they chose the sample!”

“What gets me, and my craft, is that we haven’t licensed a new mine for over six turns. I hope, for their sake, that whoever is doing this knows somewhat about it. I’ve got a group of journeymen and apprentices going over our records, making a list of people we’ve thrown out, or who’ve left for their own reasons. It’s not going to be a very long list. You’ve no idea where they’re operating from?”

“Not really. The fellow intimated that a round trip took two seven-days. Allowing for loading, unloading and resting the beasts; that means around five days travel each way: maybe a day less to allow for falls.”

“Which way did he come and go?”

“I’m told he came up the river trail. He certainly set back off that way. But how soon he left it we don’t know. We didn’t see any need to follow him.”

Vill joined in. “There’re dozens of side trails up into the foothills down there. And there’re at least six fords, so he could have gone south.”

“North’s more likely, given the quality. Nearly all the outcroppings and veins to the south are poorer quality and fragmented. They’re fine for supplying a cot-hold or two, but not for this.” He sat and pondered for a minute or two while Arnot topped up his wine. “Is there any chance of using that bloke of yours?”

“Who: Byrt?”

“That’s the fellow.”

“That may be possible. He’s finishing off a bit of craft business down in Southern Boll. We’re going to have to appoint a new craft-master at our hall down there (the ins and outs of the matter are of no concern here and now). I want to move a certain somebody with a lot of experience across to there and he’s not quite ready to move. I’ll also need to post a new senior journeyman down there. He COULD hold things for a bit. We’ll need a ‘Byrt Special’ from the Weyr then.”

“Why bring him back here?” Arnot asked. “You can send a message with the journeyman to brief him, and they can drop him off somewhere in the mountains.”

“Good idea.” A knock at the door interrupted him. “Yes? What is it?”

“A message from Tillek Hold.”

“Come then.”

The door opened and the young journey-woman entered and handed over a message scroll to her Craft Master.

He opened it. “Hm-m: ah-h.” He pursed his lips. “Lord Berba of Tillek requests my presence to discuss a problem discovered by the Weyr.” He threw a quizzical look at his opposite number. “I wonder: do you think this could be OUR problem from a different angle? Perhaps you’d better come too.” He picked up his wine, finished it and refilled the beaker.

The Master Miner finished his in one long swallow and put the beaker down. “If we don’t go, we’ll never find out. The green that brought me is still somewhere around.”

“Hush man. I still hate flying. If I’ve got to do it, I need some liquid courage. Right, Arnot, if that fellow turns back up while I’m away; keep him here. I SHOULD be back by supper.”

-o-0-o-

N’key flew in to Rundles that evening. Greeted by Rindeeno, he was escorted to the hold. In the kitchen he found Randeel having supper.

“There’re two bits of news. We’ve found another empty cot: in Nabol: about half way between here and the Hold. And C’lef thinks that he and Wrath may, MAY, have spotted the group. If he’s right they’re about a day’s journey north-east of the empty cot we’ve just found. He played it very cagey and kept away. The last thing we want to do is frighten them into killing the captives.”

“Too right!”

“And you’re wanted at High Reaches Weyr for a meeting to plan the rescue. We’re collecting both Lord Holders; Rahon from Ru-atha and Methyr from Nabol”

“Have I time to finish my meal?”

“Sure.”

-o-0-o-

In the study of the Berba, Lord Holder of Tillek, the group were standing round, looking at a map of the Hold and its lands.

The Lord Holder himself was central with the two Craft Masters at his shoulder. On his other side B’riny, the Tillek Weyrleader, stood hovering. The green rider from High Reaches, carefully keeping the Weyrleader between himself and the Lord Holder, was rather out of his depth but firmly determined to uphold the honour of his weyr.

The Lord Holder was summing up, “So, we’ve two problems. Firstly an unauthorised mine probably somewhere between fifty and a hundred miles from here, up in the hills and probably north of the main valley trail. That means it’s in un-held land. I only go about thirty miles in that direction, and Jarfan, in Crom Hold, only comes about forty miles back towards us. There’s quite a gap between the two.

“Problem number two is the two lots of people missing from cot-holds in Crom ... “

He broke off as the green rider held up his hand. “My dragon reports a message from Oveth, our senior gold. We’ve had a report of an empty cot-hold in eastern Ru-atha. Apparently the raid was about four days ago, and this evening another minor holding, a beasthold this time, is reported empty in southern Nabol. That one appears to have been raided today. One of our brown riders thinks that he has spotted the group marching their prisoners northwards along a mountain track. High Reaches Weyr has called a meeting with the Lords Holders of Ru-atha and Nabol to plan a rescue.”

The Lord Holder of Tillek looked at the green rider, or rather, looked through him. “It’ seems to be spreading. I WAS going to say that neither problem is strictly mine: the first is a craft matter and the second is Jarfan’s. But, I think this is getting too big for any one Hold, or Craft, to handle. We need to co-operate and co-ordinate.” He looked at Weyrleader B’riny. “Can you fly all of us down to High Reaches?”

“Of course. And I’ll get Lath to warn Oveth of our coming.”

“Before we go: tomorrow, can you start checking MY holds and cots? My men on runners can check the nearer ones, but the further ones would take us days.”

“We’ll make a start certainly, but we’ve a fall over Lemos in the afternoon. We’re sharing the flight with Igen, but we can’t be too tired or we’ll make mistakes.”

“To make efficient use of the flights the riders should also keep looking for the new mine as well.”

“The actual adit may be hard to spot,” chimed in the Master Miner, “but the heaps of fresh tailings should be easy to spot.”

“Well my map here shows every mine, and every cot that is mine ... Hey! Don’t tell my harper I made a rhyme will you? The pompous young idiot thinks HE’S the only one who can use words.” He turned to B’riny. “You have a copy of this in the Weyr don’t you?”

“Of course. And of all the other Holds under our wings.”

“Let’s go!”

-o-0-o-

Fetched from sorting out ‘That Mess’ in Southern Boll, Byrt and his three runners were safely landed in a little valley about a glass before dawn. He saddled his riding runner, loaded the two pack animals and mounted. They ambled carefully down the valley heading south.

With dawn in the sky Byrt guided his animals round the spur of foothill and into the next valley. Pausing by the stream to let them drink, he looked round in apparent idleness. There was a faint but definite trail developing along the easiest route up this valley. Chirruping to his trio, he set off again up the route.

A couple of glasses later he passed a couple of pats of dung: unmistakably herd beast dropping. He didn’t dismount, or even pause. He could see that they were well dried out. The way the sun baked these bare valleys, that wouldn’t take long. He increased his level of wariness. It seemed more than likely that he was, after all in the right valley, the one the blue rider had been in so briefly. Whoever was doing the mining would have to bring in food for his workcrew. No crops would grow on these stones flakes and no beasts could graze on the sparse scrubby shrubs that occasionally sprouted along the line of the stream.

A flapping noise had his hand reaching for the hilt of his short sword, scabbarded between his shoulder-blades, as his head turned to seek the source of the noise. Just a wherry taking off. Spooked by himself more than likely. Leaving the two pack runners, he guided his saddle runner up to where the bird had taken off. The remains of some small animal were half hidden behind a rock, but not enough remained to identify which variety of rock scurrier it had been. He returned to the trail and grabbed the lead ropes for the other two beasts.

Rukbat was getting high in the sky when the route he was following swung round a side spur. With a cliff rising on his right, and the stream below him, there was not much choice of route at this point. He came round the spur to find two armed men in his way; one with a pike and the other with a braced bow.

“Who’re you an’ where’re you going?” demanded the archer.

“I’m a travelling smith and I’m heading up this valley to go over that pass up there,” replied Byrt pointing up to the head of the valley. “I’m heading over Ogren way.”

“Not up THIS valley you’re not. Pick another. We’ve claimed this one and the Boss don’t want just anyone wandering through.”

“Why?”

“Don’ know: he just does. An’ he pays me to obey.”

By nightfall Byrt was well up the next valley west with his runners hobbled. He had used some of his small stock of coal to supplement the little amount of fuel he could gather, but he’d had a cooked meal and had filled his flask with hot klah. It wouldn’t stay even warm for long but, in Byrt’s opinion, tepid klah was a lot better than a cold stream with something dead in it!

After a couple of glasses resting rolled in his blanket, he slid quietly out of it and, with his sword dangling down his back and his small pack on slung across one shoulder, he set off up a side gulley he’d spotted that evening.

Reaching the saddle into his target valley some three glasses later, Byrt scouted around carefully, taking care not to offer a silhouette against the clear sky. If they were blocking EVERY route then this was an obvious spot for a guard post. Nothing. Good. He started down the north side. It was darker here and he had to move more slowly. A very faint glow over the ridge on the far side told him that Timor would soon be shedding its feeble light into the valley.

He was about a third of the way down to the valley floor when he found the little mountain stream: by stepping into it. He’d heard a faint bubbling noise for the last couple of minutes and the noise was STILL below him. Shards! It was COLD!

A few paces further on he found a pair of rocks with a man-sized gap between them. He drew his sword and prodded carefully, in case there was a tunnel snake in residence. Finding it clear, he took out his food and drink out, and placing the bag as a cushion eased himself down to rest and wait. With a cushion under him, food and drink to sustain him and a job to do; he was content. Life wasn’t too bad.

-o-0-o-

Five dragons from High Reaches Weyr popped out over a cluster of alps high in the hills to the east of Nabol Hold. It was about two glasses before sunset and the summer beasthold was about six miles in front of the raiders’ last report position. The various discreet reconnaissance flights watching the raiders intermittently reported that, though wary, the raiders didn’t have any scouts out.

The track the raiders were using had to pass this holding before, eventually, leading down to the trail to Crom. The beasthold was an obvious staging post and target for the raiders. The dragons off loaded Methyr, Lord Holder of Nabol, and his eighteen men-at-arms, all fully armed. After a brief speech by the Lord Holder, his beast-holder, with his family, all left on dragonback. Then, leaving the herd beasts contentedly grazing with their new younglings, Methyl and his men got out of sight in the buildings.

It took three glasses for the raiders to arrive at the beasthold: the last of the gloaming was fading into night. Methyl had taken his sergeant’s advice and had the glow baskets opened, so all looked normal. There was nobody about. But then they didn’t expect anybody this late. This late in the evening everyone would be in the cot, finishing their evening meal and getting ready for bed.

As the raiders chivvied their prisoners along the last half mile another flight of dragons, carrying the Lord Holder of Ru-atha, his fifteen guards and Randeel were waiting in the next valley. They each had a mental picture of their exact landing spot. Also with them were Lyza on her gold, and C’lef on his brown, carrying the healers from both the Holds and the Weyr.

The raiders dismounted with the children they were carrying: carrying not for humane reasons, but to ensure the good behaviour of the adults. Most of the captives slumped to the ground exhausted. Despite numerous bruises and a couple of sword cuts the beast-holder, captured earlier that day, stood swaying, fists clenched, looking as though he would like to attack his captors.

The raider guarding the man’s latest child yelled, “Sit!” and gestured at the child with his belt knife. The man slumped to the ground, and the cot door opened.

Out rushed the Lord Holder of Nabol and four of his men all yelling. The yells were echoed as the rest of the Nabolese contingent rushed out from the two beast sheds.

There were a series of claps around the edge of the main alp as the dragons carrying the Ru-athan contingent arrived, off loaded, and their passengers tore into the rear of the raiders.

It was soon over and Lyza and C’lef, who had been circling anxiously, glided in to land the healers. The captives had first priority. Mostly they were suffering from exhaustion, dehydration, bruising and sunburn. Their cuts were mostly minor. The healers quickly dressed wounds and applied numbweed and soothing lotions. The one exception was Barlow, Randeel’s man, who had a festering sword cut on his shoulder. The Nabol healer dosed him with numbweed and fellis, and still had to get three large dragon-riders to hold Barlow down while the cut was cleaned out with red-wort. The healer slapped on a bread poultice, bandaged it in place, and looked round for somebody else to treat.

His next patient was Lyza, the only dragon-rider hurt. She had sprained her ankle trying to grab one of the children to safety out of the mêlée.

“No running around on that for at least a seven-day,” she was told as he bandaged it.

”Thank the Egg I’ve got a dragon to ride on then,” she grunted back at him. “Sharding thing! Haven’t done that since I was eight!”

By this time things were concluded. Dragons were popping in and out in all directions. The Ru-athan contingent, augmented by their share of the victims, was being airlifted back where they belonged. The raiders, guarded by the Nabolese sergeant and his men, were being made to bury the two of their number who had been killed. They would then be herded down under guard to Nabol Hold to await trial. The cot-holder, who had been the absent host, and his family, who all had been treated to dinner at the Weyr, were being returned to their rightful place, slightly tipsy it is true, but sober enough to retrieve a number of herd-beasts who had panicked at the presence of the dragons and found a way out.

-o-0-o-

Dawn was only a green bruise over the eastern side of the valley when Byrt, dozing in his hide, heard noises below and to his left. A clanging bell and sundry yells drifted round the corner. He realised that he would have to move, if he wanted to observe. He stretched his legs out, twiddling his feet to get his ankles working. The left one was always the worst. He carefully repacked his bag and planned his first move: about ten feet down and to his right. He made that one and looked for the next. It too was down and to the right. He made that one also, unseen and unheard.

“Bother,” he thought, “this gulley is getting me lower, but I want to be down and left.”

He had to make two more moves before he spotted a route over the left hand spur. He cautiously headed up and over it, crawling from rock to rock. The sun was over the rim now. The sky was clear. It was going to be scorcher.

Eventually he caught sight of the mine below him. He didn’t have a good view of it yet but there was a good rock about twenty feet further on: if he could cross a stretch of scree.

A clatter of dislodged rock shards slid away under his left ankle, wrenching it. He lay still panting, and quickly did his best impression of a wherry cry. To his surprise a real one answered him from up slope and the creature took off noisily with the usual heavy flapping. With a bit of luck whoever was down THERE would assume it was all the same bird. He crawled slowly on.

Ensconced safely on the north side of the large rock, Byrt relaxed, at least physically. Below him were two almost identical buildings. In the one doorway he could see lounged a couple of men wearing an odd assortment of weapons and armour. Neither looked anything like any miners Byrt had ever seen.

From the other building came variety of yells and cries. After a few minutes a line of raggedly dressed adults and children emerged, herded along by half a dozen men wielding whips. At a yell from the larger of the two watchers in the doorway, two of the guards grabbed two of the women, one of them pregnant, and frog-marched them to the barrack block before returning to help guard the workers. The column disappeared below him and after a bit he could hear the noise of picks. To judge by the quality of the noises, as yet they were only extracting the blackrock exposed in the cliff face.

Another group of half a dozen men were escorted to a corner of the yard where a corner watchtower was being finished. Under the threat of swung whips the group started hauling rough lumps of stone up the flimsy wooden scaffolding.

Byrt looked round as much as he could without exposing himself to the watcher on the other, completed watchtower. The man spent most of his time gazing southwards down the valley. Byrt wriggled round his rock a bit to stay in the shade.

The mine itself was obviously in the cliff below the steep slope on which he was hiding. The two single storey buildings were built parallel to each other, roughly perpendicular to the cliff face. The further one had the usual slot windows with shutters and the one visible door looked as though it was iron.

The nearer building had much narrower slit windows with no shutters for protection during a fall. The door was out of sight. One for guards and one for prisoners thought Byrt.

A high wall of boulders roughly mortared together formed three sides of a compound; with the cliff forming the fourth side. The watch towers formed the corners and an arched gateway was roughly central in the long wall with an iron grille filling it.

Byrt gazed round his rock and up at Rukbat. It appeared to be around mid-morning. He reached carefully for his flask and drank about half of it. Ugh! Cold klah was not his favourite thirst quencher. There didn’t seem to be anything else to learn by staying, but he would have to stay put until he could extract himself safely and unseen.

The sun was really high when the two women were literally kicked out of the barracks; the pregnant one was half carrying the other younger one. Much younger, Byrt realised seeing her face on for the first time. They disappeared from his view, presumably heading back into the dubious safety of the cell block. The bell was vigorously rung and, in a bit, the workers were herded back, from the mine and the tower, for a nooning which, in their case, seemed to consist of stale bread and water. Four more guards appeared and relieved the ones on duty.

The large man appeared in the doorway and looked across at the guard still on the other tower.

“Ganzo!” he yelled and beckoned hugely.

Byrt stared very hard at the man climbing down from the tower. He was the right build at least.

“So that’s where you landed up.” He thought. “I really want to get YOU!” He looked carefully round. The guards were watching the workers and nobody had, as yet, replaced Ganzo on the tower. Byrt started to slide from shadow to shadow, working back south to the gulley down which he had come in the dark.

Rukbat was setting when a weary Byrt arrived at Nowhere Hold and asked to see the Holder. Following his meeting a drum message to High Reaches Weyr was sent reverberating and echoing on its way down the valley towards Crom. A few glasses later, in response, N’key on his blue arrived to carry Byrt to Crom Hold, leaving his beasts to be cared for by the Holder’s folk.

-o-0-o-

Lord Holder Jarfan of Crom listened intently to Byrt’s report and promptly sent off the liaison rider attached to his hold with messages for Berba at Tillek Hold and B’riny at the Weyr. N’key was despatched to the Smithcraft Hall to collect the Craft-masters Vill and Pik.

-o-0-o-

In the depths of the night, a glass or so before dawn four laden dragons came gliding down the valley. Pausing briefly on the walls to offload, they pushed off again and glided on to land on the valley floor. Their loads, all twelve of them, spaced themselves out along the walls and strung their bows.

As they settled down to wait, a further flight glided in and did the same. The later arrivals gathered by the two towers and quietly made their way down the ladders into the compound, across to the cell block, and took up their positions along the wall facing the guards’ barracks.

After a bit Berba, Lord Holder of Tillek, shuffling his feet, nudged his neighbour, Jarfan, Lord Holder of Crom, and pointed up at the barracks roof. A thin stream of smoke was beginning to trickle out from under the lid-stone of the chimney. The cook, at least, was up. Quietly the two slid their swords from their scabbards. Their action was copied along the line of men-at-arms.

Lord Berba mentally went over their disposition. The twelve archers, six from Crom and his own four, plus two of his foresters were to stop anybody from escaping over the wall. The Cromian sergeant in charge of them was an old veteran who could be relied on to control them. The last thing anyone wanted was arrows zipping among the fighters in the compound. There were seventeen men-at arms lined up with him, his own eleven, and Jarfan’s six. Plus himself, of course, and Jarfan. Oh; and Byrt, who had insisted on coming for all sorts of logical reasons. He had been found some boiled leather armour. Well, a breastplate and helmet at least, and he had his own sword. He had also insisted on bringing his favourite hammer, tucked into his belt. He was standing the other side of Lord Jarfan.

Berba leaned towards his sergeant and whispered to him. The man nodded and moved off quietly towards the gate, tapping three other men to follow as he did so.

In the growing daylight the iron door of the barracks groaned open, and four men came out into the shadowy yard. One was coiling his whip; one was yawning still half asleep; and the other two were still finishing their breakfasts. They were half way across the yard before they realised that anything was different. Even then they didn’t react very quickly.

“What are you doing here?” asked one of the breakfast eaters.

“We’ve come to kill you.” Growled Jarfan

The four grabbed for their swords.

“NOW!” Yelled Berba.

The quartet were quickly cut down, three by the main group and the fourth by the men guarding the gate. Byrt and three men-at-arms stayed by the cellblock door to guard the prisoners and the others, led by Jarfan, headed for the barracks. Two other men appeared. The fact that one of them was the cook, armed only with his porridge ladle, didn’t save him.

The other sprinted for the unfinished tower and started scrambling up the scaffolding. Twelve arrows sped towards him. Three missed, and one pinged off his helmet, but the other eight brought him tumbling back to earth. The attackers disappeared inside the barracks: there was a brief flurry of clashing swords and then it was over.

-o-0-o-

Byrt walked over to the grille in the entrance and, pulling out his hammer, smashed the lock off it and pulled it open allowing in the healers. He then walked over to the body at the foot of the scaffold. As he had surmised, it was Ganzo. He prodded it with his foot: definitely dead. At least he could have the satisfaction of telling Randeel; even if he hadn’t had the greater pleasure of killing him himself.

The Cromian sergeant was busy organising lookouts on the towers. Even if the battle was over, there were still a number of men unaccounted for. The guards at the outpost down the trail were just one such group. There might be others. The wingleader had similar ideas and despatched a couple of riders to sweep round and check. The two Lord Holders, after setting sufficient archers and men-at-arms to guard the remaining defeated gang members, entered the cellblock.

As they’d surmised there was just one large room, with just a couple of buckets for sanitation. The number of men, women and children occupying the room totalled between two and three dozen. Berba discovered a cot-holder, from a remote corner of his holdings, clutching his family.

“They just grabbed us one dawn. Day after threadfall it was when we was all tired from lugging flamethrowers around. We didn’t stand much chance against eight of them. We been here around three sevendays I think. They killed my boy. He was always a bit slow like: too slow for them. Killed him and pitched him down the gulley out there. Sarey here went mad I think. She’s calmed down a bit now, but she was swearing and screaming until they whipped her unconscious. She ain’t been the same since. He was her first.”

Berba gripped his shoulder. “We’ll get a healer to see her as soon as we can.” He tipped his head back and yelled, “Philp!”

“Sir?” Came a voice from outside.

“Works every time,” whispered Berba with a grin.

His hold healer arrived at the run. “You yelled for me: again?”

“Yes Philp. This is Sarey who needs some very tender care.” He gave Philp a straight look under his brows.

“Yes, my Lord. Suppose I start by going over the whole family group.”

“Good man. I’ve got a thing or two to do outside.”

“Shall I come with you?” asked Jarfan.

“Good idea.”

The two strode from the cellblock and across to where the surviving members defeated gang where lugging out the bodies of their late comrades. Under close supervision of course.

“Where’s your leader?” Jarfan asked the nearest.

The man kicked one of the bodies. “Him.”

The two Lords looked down at the body. Neither of them knew him, but somebody would.

“Right: we’ll take this one back with us. The rest we’ll dispose of.”

Next they walked out through the gate. Standing on the edge of the gulley, with the stream tumbling down it, they looked around. Some white objects among the grey and brown rocks caught their attention and they started a slow descent. At one point a foot slipped and nearly pitched Jarfan down the slope.

“Want a hand, my lord?” It was Byrt scrambling down behind them, having shed his borrowed armour.

They found five sets of remains. Between wherries, tunnel snakes and scurriers there wasn’t much left apart from the bones. But they could tell that one had been a pregnant female: a little baby skull still nestled inside her pelvis.

Returning to the compound, the Lords Holder gradually talked to every adult captive and some of the children too. Apart from Berba’s cot-holders, most of the family groups were all itinerant travellers spending the summer providing extra labour for various harvests. The other exception was a small family caught travelling home from a cousin’s wedding.

The single men were mostly peddlers who had roved from hold to cot-hold carrying an assortment of easily traded goods to isolated folk. The exception among this group was a sea-captain who, temporarily fed up with the coasts, had had a yearning to visit the mountains.

Most of the adults, and a few of the older children, bore the marks of whippings; wheals and scars, both. Every woman over the age of puberty had been raped over and over. One woman was sure she was now pregnant.

“If you want,” the medics told her, “we’ll arrange a trip Between for you. You don’t have to decide yet. Think about it.”

Those men-at-arms and archers not needed for guard or lookout duties were busily cooking porridge and klah, using the supplies of the erstwhile guards, and going round handing it out to everyone.

“A few weeks back I’d’ve turned my nose up at a bowl of porridge,” said the sea-captain”, but right now I NEVER want to see or taste another sharding crust of sharding bread.”

One of the sweep-riders reported in having checked right down the valley and back. The guards at the outpost had waved to him as he flew down. But, seeing him fly back up a half glass or so later, they had panicked and were trotting down the track as fast as they could.

Jarfan called his sergeant over. “Take a detail and ask the wing leader for four dragons to fly you down there and drop you off.”

“My dragon and I could fly them down ourselves.” Said the brown rider somewhat miffed.

“Yes, I know, but I want them surrounded by dragons and armed men. If that works as it should then there’ll be prisoners to bring back.”

The other sweep-rider also reported in but only to say that he had found the guard post at the head of the valley empty.

-o-0-o-

Gradually the freed captives and the captive guards were ferried to Tillek Hold. Berba and Jarfan decided that a public trial was the best course of action open to them, with every Lord Holder, Weyr Leader and Master Craftsman present. But, for now, as far as Berba was concerned, a good long soak in a hot tub would be grand.

Next morning the elite gathered: every Lord Holder and Weyr Leader flew in and all but one of the Craft Masters. The Seacraft Master was at sea, somewhere, so he was represented by his wife who, as usual, was running things in his absence.

The prisoners were marched out and stood along the foot of the hold cliff: the south facing hold cliff in the summer sun, with a row of archers facing them. The erstwhile prisoners were treated with more respect and were seated in the shady area of the main court. The rest of the Hold’s inmates stood or sat around in clumps, whispering and, occasionally, pointing at one or another of the prisoners. Sometimes, but more surreptitiously, they pointed at one of the gathered dignitaries.

Methyr strode across to Berba. In his usual blunt manner he asked, “Who’s going to preside? I know that this is your Hold, but that mine isn’t on your land. Or mine. Or anyone’s.”

“It does, however, come under the jurisdiction of the Master Miner. I thought he should be asked to preside.”

“Good Idea. Hey! PIK! Come and get things rolling, there’s a good chap.”

“Me?”

“Yes: you. You’re the Master Miner aren’t you?”

Justice was swift that morning. The ex-prisoners were each given the chance to tell their tale of murder, abduction, whippings and rape. Some showed their scars. None of the prisoners could produce any real reasons, or excuses, for their behaviour. Indeed, as some of the Lords Holder recognised man after man, their previous records came out.

The Master Miner duly pronounced the verdict on each of them: guilty!

“Well? What sentence?” Methyr bellowed. “Execution?”

The Master Miner looked slowly and carefully along the line. “I think that that is a sharding good mine they’ve found. They’ve been very lucky that, so far, no real mining techniques have been needed. It would be a shame to waste the site. I sentence each of them to twenty years of hard labour at the mine. I’ll appoint a master and journeymen to develop and run it. As a craft, however, we don’t run to guards. Since the gang originate all over Pern, I’ll be requesting help from every Lord Holder to keep them in.”

“What’ll you need then: one from each of us?”

“No, I think it will go better rotated. You’ll need to send about eight at a time with, with either a sergeant or Holder Son in charge. You’ll rotate every month. There’s fourteen of you Lord Holders so it won’t be too onerous, and the changing around should stop any long term bullying.”

“That sounds fair: I’m in.” Methyr nodded emphatically, and so did the other Lords Holder. “What are you going to call the place?”

Pik thought for a bit. “You know: it doesn’t deserve a name. It’ll be the twenty-third blackrock mine to go on our books. That’ll do: Mine 23.”
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Old May 6 2008, 12:28 AM   #2
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Thanks, P'ter, I enjoyed that!
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Old May 7 2008, 12:57 AM   #3
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Thanks, P'ter, I enjoyed that!

Me, too!!
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Old May 8 2008, 09:46 PM   #4
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Brown Re: Byrt 3

Thankye kindly sir for sharing such a charming story. Here's to you


Cheers
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Old Dec 24 2008, 12:39 AM   #5
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P'ter not being a nit pick here just found a few questions for you: Tillek Weyrleader. Ru-athan, and turn of the glasses?

Overall a nice "who done it" Pern style! Nice to see Byrt in action again
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Old Dec 24 2008, 04:53 AM   #6
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Default Re: Byrt 3

Tillek Weyr's a mistake: should be High Reaches, thank you. (There sort of IS a Tillek Weyr: in one of the fan sites.)

Ru-Atha: see 'The Ford of Red Hanrahan'.

Turn of the glass: this is well before Aivas & Piemur re-invent watches. Sand-glasses are a useful low-tech substitute. I'm surprised Anne hasn't put them in. you can't ALWAYS look at the sun.
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Old Jan 7 2009, 04:32 AM   #7
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Tillek Weyr's a mistake: should be High Reaches, thank you. (There sort of IS a Tillek Weyr: in one of the fan sites.)

Ru-Atha: see 'The Ford of Red Hanrahan'.

Turn of the glass: this is well before Aivas & Piemur re-invent watches. Sand-glasses are a useful low-tech substitute. I'm surprised Anne hasn't put them in. you can't ALWAYS look at the sun.
P'ter I've hear of turn of the glass in other books many for ships, or bells

The fan written also use a candlemark too.

The only one I can think of is at the Harper Hall the bell chimes the hour! Also ringing of a bell at the Wyer.

I've read it as Ruathan, most of the time and I have read that short story too on its naming
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Old Feb 17 2010, 08:16 AM   #8
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Default Re: Byrt 3

Sorry for bringing this forward, I am just marking this to let it go into my subscriptions, so I can find it and read it later. No time right now.
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