Warm dust clung to John’s boots as he walked down the dirt road, munching pensively on a salted heel of bread. Next to him, quietly keeping pace, was his son Johnathan, devouring the last of an onion.
It was early morning.
John set a fast pace. His son’s lanky legs allowed him to keep up. Neither of them felt the need to speak.
This wasn’t unusual. John’s mind was on the job as he walked: equipment, routes, and other preparations he would need to consider. These thoughts came as easily as breathing to him. They did not slow him down or cause him strain. Not after forty-five years of practice.
These were things he had been trying to instill in his son – familiarity with his trade to the point where he could plan in his sleep. Preparation and a methodic eye for detail – they meant everything.
The road, striped down the middle with grass, left the bridge spanning the Silverun behind and marched up a hill. Stumps and dying roots dotted the hills on either side of the road. What was once a dense, thriving thicket had been clear-cut for lumber used in the mines.
Orphaned saplings swayed in unison to the morning breeze. In the spaces of open ground between them grew cornflower and daisies, giving crickets their stage from which to dance and chirp. An eastern bluebird appeared with one of these in its mouth, still twitching. The bird disappeared just as quickly, leaving behind a quivering tree branch.
A peaceful morning if he ever saw one, but John’s head was elsewhere. This day was about to be very difficult. Not that the technical aspects of it would prove to be particularly challenging, but the outcome was entirely out of his hands and he hated it – bluebirds and daisies be damned.
John was a man who liked to create his own luck. The more information he could first gather about a certain task, and the more agency he had, the better he felt about it. That’s why every day he applied his principles of preparation and scrupulousness. It had kept him employed with honest work, fed his family, and gave him a trade to pass down to his child.
But a job like this – one that would be perfectly ordinary under different circumstances but now carried monumental weight – he felt anything but good about. There were really only two options: he delivered the Baron vaguely good news, or catastrophically bad news.
What was it he said? “Bring me good news, John. I don’t want to hear anymore about ‘running dry’. Just go find me some goddamn silver!”
As the road wound to the left, Quarry Town came into view.
Divided from the actual town of the Barony by the rushing waters of the Silverun, Quarry Town resembled a small hamlet of wooden cottages, shop fronts, and canvas tents – all arranged in a loose grid. Paths of surest brevity led to the butcher shop, the saloon, the foreman’s lodge, and other significant sites.
The hour was early enough to still find laborers gearing up for the first shifts. The forge fires had been stoked well in advance, their smiths enjoying a morning pipe and early conversation with the miners and muckers before the first bell. Men sat out on the porches in stools and chairs, ragged and lean, dressed in suspenders and crumpled hats. They watched father and son pass by. A sparse few found the desire to greet them in passing.
“Mornin’ young fella.”
“Good morning,” Jonathan muttered, avoiding eye contact.
They took the main road through the center of town, giving a wide berth to carts hauling wood, stone, and iron ingots, following the flow of workmen.
Clerks went about opening shop fronts as laborers trickled in, looking for a place to get a quick breakfast or wet their throats with the first drink of the day.
There was a ritual to it all, formed of paranoia and kinship. Accidents happened all the time. Unfortunately, they were often fatal. Every day on the job could be their last – saints preserve them.
Everyone understood this. The man that started his morning with a beer and two eggs in the saloon’s corner seat would continue to do so for most of his seventy years of life, never knowing the world outside his habits. The ritual was normal, and normal was safe. Safe meant no more monsters or marauding bandits. Most took strength from their faith in the Father and the Saints in these worst of times. Hymns of community and family had kept them together through the generations.
John rounded a corner into the center intersection – the busy crossroads of Quarry Town.
As always, the town’s dogs came running at Jonathan with wagging tails and panting breath, overjoyed to see their favorite human. John always marveled at this. His son’s skill with animals was remarkable. He left Jonathan on the road to be smothered in canines as he unlocked the front door of the foreman’s lodge.
The building was among the largest in Quarry Town, housing a front parlor on the first floor, a meeting hall and storage room on the second, several living spaces and the bailiff’s (second) office on the third. A iron emblem hung on the front stoop of the building, depicting a crossed hammer and pickaxe.
These iron signs were everywhere in the town, their creaking sway just another part of the background noise. There were never any written words, in Machian Common or otherwise.
As far as John knew, only three people had the keys to the lodge – himself, Ernst, and Rey – and rightfully so. It held in storage John’s prospecting equipment, the foreman’s ledgers, and the deed to the mines. Looking around, he seemed to be the only one there.
John climbed to the second floor, unlocked one of several storage rooms, and retrieved his gear from a footlocker.
…and an eye for detail.
He checked and double checked that he had everything he needed before locking up: two climbing harnesses, two coils of climbing rope (marked in meters to double as a measuring tool), two pairs of steel climbing spikes, a leather tube containing his maps and measurements, two sticks of chalk, ten pitons, three cowstails, ten wooden stakes, two oil lanterns, and a delver’s flask. More advanced equipment remained behind – he would avoid using unless absolutely necessary.
He checked that the locks were properly locked before returning to the pile of dogs that covered his son.
Jonathan was wet with slobber, laughing and greeting each dog by name.
Like a normal kid, John thought, for the first time in a long while.
He divided up the equipment between the two of them, making sure to carry the maps himself. They were worth more than he felt comfortable admitting, and cost no small amount of time or toil.
Jonathan hefted his burden onto his back without fuss. His father secured his own load before leading the way on the road out of Quarry Town, eyes forward.
Both of them drew more attention with their rope coiled across one shoulder, work belts laden with tools. They walked single file from road to alley to path and eventually to wooded trail.
The warm rays of Solus had heated the loose shale beneath their boots by the time they had made it into the ravine. John paused, scanned the rocky slope, and selected a relatively flat patch of ground nearby.
“Let’s set up here,” he said, and the two of them unburdened themselves of their equipment. Wordlessly they went about checking their work belts – both jingling with hammers and chisels – and tucked sturdy gloves into their pockets. John shielded his eyes against Solus and pointed up the incline.
“I’ll start there, below that tree, on the left side. You start over on the right, past that boulder and work your way in. We’ll meet here in the middle.”
He passed his son a loose bundle of wooden stakes.
“Remember to mark what you find.”
“Okay,” Jonathan replied.
The two split up, hauling themselves over loose tumbling rock and dry soil. A thought occurred to John and he paused.
“And watch out for snakes,” he hollered. Jonathan looked over, nodded, and continued carefully up the incline.
The two went to work, sifting through the broken rock with hand and hammer. Solus cast two shadows on them: one darkening the hillside with shade, the other darkening their backs with sweat. After an hour John’s mouth was almost too dry to swallow. He paused to check on his son’s progress, smearing the sweat off his brow. Jonathan was making good time – exactly where he should be. But not a single marker. He frowned.
“Did you forget to use the markers?” Jonathan looked up from his excavation, sweat plastering his mop of hair to his forehead.
“No, I haven’t found anything.”
John sighed, fighting off a building sense of dread. He glanced up at his own progress. He hadn’t used a single marker, either. He stood up to full height to stretch his back, which ached in protest.
“Let’s take another hour or so to finish this up,” he said without much enthusiasm. “The fellas from demo should be here by then with the charges.”
Jonathan shot him a thumbs-up before toppling a sizable rock down the slope behind him.
The worries in John’s mind drove him to work with extra gusto for the next hour. Pink-stained cobalt and sparkling quartz were revealed beneath his hammer. Grunting with effort, he heaved large stones out of the way, always looking for the tell-tale signs of silver deposits.
The ante had never been higher.
Sure enough, he found it. Lifting aside a sizable chunk of granite, there beneath was a small patch of charcoal grey, roughly the diameter of his head. He nodded his satisfaction and marked the deposit with a wooden stake.
About time, he thought to himself, and turned to continue his way down when he paused in alarm.
He was already back at the bottom.
Only one find for two hours of work? This did not bode well. A brief image of the coming conversation he would need to have with the baron flashed through his mind. He quickly cut it off.
Don’t think of that now. Focus on what you can do….
John glanced to the side to see his son finishing up as well, with only two markers to show for it. His heart sank. Hopefully his were of better quality.
“Anything sizable?” He asked. Jonathan was now shirtless, showing an unusually muscled torso for an thirteen year old. He looked back with a stern expression, dripping with perspiration.
“No,” he replied, pointing with his hammer. “Just a small deposit of lead for the first, zinc and granite down that side by the edge, and nickel for the second. About that big,” he said, indicating his fist.
John sighed audibly and scratched his head. The day wasn’t done yet. They hadn’t even touched the new lode. There was still hope.
“Alright. Let’s call it there. Hopefully the others will be here soon.”
Father and son sat down to a lunch of buckbread and dried fruit beneath the shade of an old sycamore. The Silver Weald played for them its lively bird song, punctuated by explosions from the nearby mines.
John barely noticed the blasts. In an odd way, he just heard it as more birdsong. Its clap had shook the woodland for long enough to have become part of it.
Jonathan tugged on his shoulder, pointing up at the sky.
“Da, what’s that?”
John shaded his eyes against the sun.
“A hawk.” It banked left, wheeling around the nearby ravine. “Must be hunting.”
“Reckon the saints sent it?”
“Maybe. Could be an omen.”
“What kind of omen?”
The dangerous kind, he thought but didn’t say. The kind your future depends on. “Couldn’t say.”
“From which saint, do you think?”
“Dunno, son. Lauretta, maybe.”
“The Lady of the Woods, you mean?”
“Aye. But who’s to say.”
They sat in silence for a moment, sipping on a waterskin.
Jonathan piped in again.
“Is it true every time you mention the name of the underworld, a demon escapes to the surface?”
John shot him a look. Saints! Where does he come up with these questions?
Sometimes he felt like he had no idea what was happening in that little head of his.
“That’s what they say…”
Jonathan nodded sagely, as if he had learned something of great importance.
John raised an eyebrow. Clara, he thought. How did we raise such a strange child? He shook his head and stood up with a grunt.
“They should have been here by now. We’ll clean our tools while we wait.”
The two tended to their equipment as Solus approached its zenith. John’s mind wandered to thoughts of the mines, other tasks that needed tending to, and frustrations with people’s tardiness and lack of professionalism.
Suddenly, a blast of pain shot through the joints of his hands, forcing him to drop his tool clattering to the ground. Jonathan glanced over. Clutching his hand, John grimaced and tried to flex his fingers. They did so, slowly and with an abundance of aching.
This had been happening a lot lately, and with increasing frequency.
“You okay, Da?”
He stooped to pick up his tool. “I’m fine.”
But he wasn’t. Saints above, don’t let this happen. Not now…
He knew it was a long time coming. With every swing of the hammer he could feel the shock weaken and damage his grip, little by little. Clara was right – he needed to do something about it – show it to Ms. Fiona, maybe. But what if it was too late?
A sinking feeling took root in his chest, swelling in threat and size. What if it didn’t get better? It could put him out of work. Who would provide for Clara and Jonathan?
The lad was bright – alarmingly so, at times – and would make a fine prospector like his Da, but he wasn’t fully trained yet, and he was still too young. Clara couldn’t pay the Barony taxes on her own.
No – that wasn’t the underlying problem, and he knew it. It was these dreams. He had it again, two nights back, and he knew with rising certainty that its events would come to pass. Him, alone with their son, a funeral pyre sending his beloved to the Storm Father. He didn’t know the how or the why, but it would happen. He was sure of it.
The sinking feeling in his gut had evolved into a full-fledged whirlpool, hurling him around its epicenter like a soggy piece of driftwood.
He snapped to. “Wh-what?”
“You’ve polished that already. Four times.”
John looked down at his work belt, dripping with leather oil. His hands ached again. He set it down with a sigh. He needed to keep moving – keep doing something.
“Come on, if they’re not going to show up, we’ll get started without them. We can at least take another look at the back of that shaft before they detonate it.” He went to gather the necessary equipment before Jonathan stood up.
“They’re here now!”
John glanced over at the dirt road. “Well, fina-”
No one was there.
He looked back at his son, who stood there patiently waiting, then turned back to the road. Sure enough, there came riding down a cart, hitched to a mule, led by several men.
John looked sharply at his son. There it is again! How does he keep doing that?!
This tendency of Jonathan’s to know things he couldn’t possibly know worried him.
I have to keep this…habit of his a secret. Who knows what others would do if they knew about it.
He hadn’t spoken with Jonathan about it directly. Everytime he tried to, the boy grew quiet and closed off.
Maybe I should bring this to Ms. Fiona’s attention. She knows all kinds of spells and sorcery. Saints, I hope that isn’t what we’re dealing with…
The demolition crew consisted of four men, all stained in rock dust, wearing brimmed caps and loose shirts. Jonathan kept a wary distance from them. They were chatting distractedly among themselves, some smoking pipes just next to the cart of explosives. They seemed less than sober.
It took no small amount of patience to restrain his tongue, but John managed to hold back a string of reprimands at these scoundrels – showing up two hours late, and drunk at that!
What happened to the days when men were proud of their craft and worked an honest day for their families and fellows? Have Free Folk forgotten their morals so easily?
The crew exchanged greetings with John – not acknowledging their own tardiness. He covered up his impatience with politeness.
He led them to the new lode – yet to be named – a mile south of the ravine. The road leading there was barely wheel-worthy, and the crew struggled to keep their cart from tipping. They drove the mule on, cussing and snapping at each other in what was their version of teamwork.
John walked on ahead, pausing only to lend a hand in wrestling the cart over a large rock or root. He would not have paused to help them – especially with his son in tow – had it not been crucial to the job at hand. He would have much preferred to make it to the lode far before them so he and Jonathan could clear out the adit, check the supports, and prepare their gear.
Instead, all six of them made it to the new lode together. Its dark entrance ran straight into a hillside, fringed all around with paper birch and ivy. Its silence would have been unnerving, surrounded as it was by the tranquility of birdsong, had the men not been used to such things.
John and Jonathan methodically checked the interior for animals with the light of their lantern, enjoying the cool air within. The shaft was quite small, only reaching a depth of about thirty meters before terminating in a dead end. The work put into it had been minimal, since they still weren’t sure if its yields would cover the cost of the dynamite used to extract it. Tracks had been laid down, along with a single medium-sized mine cart to allow muckers to clear out the rubble after a blast.
John took care in examining the walls and ceiling. Eventually, he found his own sloppy script written on the walls in chalk, pointing out various veins of ore along the strata of bedrock.
The men outside gave him the signal that they were all ready, and he directed them to a small silver vein – one that, if blasted, wouldn’t undermine the structural integrity of the mine. He stepped aside as they went to work hammering a hole into the rock in two-man teams. This they did with surety and a practiced rhythm that set John’s mind at ease.
Eventually, with dynamite stuffed into the hand-drilled holes, everyone gathered outside. Jonathan covered his ears and tensed.
The blast shook the earth, and out from the mouth of the mine came billowing a cloud of pulverized rock dust. The others gave a whoop of childish excitement and made to go running into the adit to see the effect on the interior, but John made them wait fifteen minutes. If the explosion had destabilized the structure of the shaft, it would collapse violently into itself within that time.
Of course, it was largely his responsibility to ensure that didn’t happen in the first place, but caution should be exercised all the same, he reasoned.
The adit and interior remained standing after fifteen minutes, and they entered the shaft with shovels in hand to remove the rubble and see what remained. The tunnel had widened significantly, revealing smaller, broken deposits of lead deeper within.
John groaned. Not a good sign. Lead would certainly be of value, but not nearly as much as silver. Silver paid for its own flight back to Machia – not always so with lead. Putting it through the amalgam refinery would be the only choice left to the Baron, and that took time and labor.
He thought of this while shovelling rock and dirt into the minecart alongside his son. Just work. That’s all he could do. Just work and get back home to his loving wife at the end of the day, comforted by the knowledge that he had put in his honest labor.
“Pits of Gaul! Look at this!” It was one of the demolitionists. Jonathan looked fearfully at the man that had uttered the cursed name. John paused in his work and walked over, unfazed.
They were gathered around a fissure in one of the walls – a gap of cracked rock half a meter wide. It had probably split open in the blast. The lancing light of the crew’s oil lantern showed a passage on the other side, wreathed in darkness.
The men looked at him questioningly.
“A natural cavern, looks like,” he said, scratching his chin.
Doesn’t happen everyday. This could be good luck. It would make prospecting for new deposits easier without having to blast our way around.
Another thought occurred to him, and he stopped scratching his chin.
But, at the same time, this means any more blasting we do is much more likely to cause a cave-in with this much open space…
Best to investigate. “Let’s widen this a bit, enough for one man to fit through. I want to see what’s on the other side.”
The men nodded and went about grabbing pickaxes. John let them do the hard work this time, instead gathering his climbing gear with Jonathan, just in case.
The demolition crew had the fissure widened within ten minutes. Jonathan took point, easily fitting through the gap, sweeping the darkness of the new cavern with lantern in one hand, delver’s flask in the other. John followed behind, squeezing himself through with effort.
The tunnel curved away to the right and down a somewhat steep slope supported by stalactites and stalagmites that had fused into thin pillars. They could hear the steady plinking of liquid on rock. The smell was damp and the darkness all-consuming.
Nothing stirred. They proceeded with caution, watching their footing.
Jonathan flicked open the stopper of the delver’s flask with a finger, swirled the contents within, and let it close. He watched to make sure the color of the liquid didn’t change.
Nope. Same old grey color. The air was good to breathe for now. But the lessons instilled in him by his father drove him to keep testing it – open the spring-loaded stopper, swirl the solution, close the stopper, check for color change. John nodded his silent approval.
The walls of granite glistened with schist and tourmaline, hidden there in the darkness since time immemorial. Jonathan’s light branched off as he inspected the far wall. John followed along, circumnavigating the cavern.
Grey stone. No silver. He made several markings in chalk automatically.
“Nothing here, Da.” Jonathan’s voice echoed off the walls.
John sighed. “Alright. Let’s see if we can make our way down that slope. We’ll need to set an anchor and go slowly.”
Jonathan nodded, and the two approached the slope’s edge. John took the lantern and inspected the terrain. The stalactites and stalagmites crowded the downgrade so thickly that the bottom couldn’t be seen. It wasn’t terribly sharp an incline, but in the darkness, with unsure footing and unknown depth, it could be dangerous.
John grunted and set his jaw. Down there. That’s the last place to find any silver. It’s now or never. Please let there be some…
“Alright, son. Set the anchor there, and we’ll start spooling your rope across the – “
Jonathan grabbed his sleeve.
“Let’s leave, Da.”
John frowned. “What are you talking about? It shouldn’t ta…” he trailed off as he looked down at Jonathan’s face. The light of the lantern illuminated his expression.
Eyes wide, Jonathan stared down into the unseen cavern with terror.
“Da. Let’s leave.”
He was clutching his ear as though in pain.
John had seen his son like this before, when Jonathan had been younger. His skin crawled.
He kneeled down to be eye level with him.
“What is it?”
“There’s…something down there. We should leave.”
John’s blood ran cold. He snapped his light down into the forested slope of rocky pillars. Shadows retreated into their hiding places. Water dripped off of stone. Nothing moved.
He could vaguely make out the sounds of the demolition crew’s banter outside. He hadn’t noticed it before – how it bounded off the walls and ceiling, carrying further into the darkness. Now it seemed jarringly loud. His nerves suddenly felt stretched to breaking.
He looked back at Jonathan, shaking and covering his ears to keep out the…silence?
What has gotten into him?
The boy looked up at his father with a desperate pleading.
“Da, please!” he whispered. “This is a bad place. We need to leave!”
This is one of his insights, John realized. He hesitated. The boy has never been wrong before…
“Alright, kiddo. Let’s leave.”
The two left the dark slope. Jonathan gripped his father’s sleeve the whole time, practically pulling him out of the cavern. John saw his son’s eyes dart back to that darkness incessantly. He marvelled at the boy’s transformation.
Something really shook him up. He found himself looking back over his shoulder into the cavern.
He said something is down there. Something bad…
Without even noticing it, John had stopped worrying about the silver.
As they emerged back into the mine’s shaft, the crew asked what they had found. John didn’t lie. “There’s nothing good in there,” he said, and the men accepted this as reason enough.
Jonathan didn’t say a word. He sat under a tree, knees huddled close to his chest, staring back into the gloom.