Today was the first of Timber. That meant the Lantern Moth would be passing out of the third layer, the Roc was nearing its yearly disappearance to the west, and the Barrel was directly below the Great Chasm. Teme Natterboars studied her sphongostrology booklet in the flickering lantern light.
Luck. It was going to be a lucky day.
The Natterboars had never been particularly lucky Neuers. Even their name seemed to have been left over from a pile of more auspicious names snatched up by other houses. It was only through sheer stubborn tradition that they kept it, since to be a house one of your ancestors must have been someone at some point. Teme’s mother had spoken at great length of a famous ancestor that was chief valet to some minor count who’d fallen to the Sleepdrinkers (the count, not the valet), but she’d never heard of any ancestor that justified taking the name.
Today, however, the Neuern Zodiac predicted great success for those born under the sign of the Tunnel.
As Teme tapped away at the stone with the tip of her pickax she imagined finding a big vein of tetrahedrite. She’d never have seen it around here in her great grandmother’s day, but when the Gear of Books collapsed their mages exhausted themselves shuffling the ore veins of the continent as a last taunt to the empire. She’d heard about the flecks of bismuth found off tunnel E, and there was a sizable deposit of native copper to the north they’d nearly finished off, but tetrahedrite might be anywhere and was worth double. Finding the tiniest copper vein find would net a miner five silver pieces. The traces of silver in tetrahedrite were more than enough to smelt coins themselves. Really it would be paid in a big certificate, silver being too important for using as coins. And anyway, what it meant was enough for a month of room and board plus the pay for digging it out; real food, too; not mining camp mushrooms. Larger veins meant money to put away.
The sound of her pickax against the stone echoed along the long tunnel, deep beneath the surface, and was answered by the echoes of dozens of others. Everywhere Neuerstoti sent exploratory tunnels downward, seeking the riches of the stone. Lamps gradually filled the growing spiderweb with stars. As real as the stars in the sky, and the glowing fungus colonies that made up the signs of the Neuern Zodiac somewhere below.
Teme had always dreamed of being an alchemist, but her family couldn’t afford the one hundred silver pieces it cost to enroll in the guild’s exclusive academy. Instead she had joined the Miner’s Guild like her mother, and gone to the Desertflax mining camp for work. Here the pay was little and the rooms expensive, but a lucky Neuer could make enough to buy a chance at a better life.
Her mining pulled a chunk of granite into the passageway and a hauler ran forward to scoop it up, barely missing being brained by her pickax. She called for them to have a care but they were already away. The haulers had a worse lot than the miners. They received one copper coin for every piece of ore or stone they carried to the surface offices where they’d be shipped off to smelters and craftsneuers. Grown Neuerstoti carrying rocks for a living were a sad state, but most companies brought in urchins from the local towns and drove them home again for half their wages. Two of them scuffled as another chunk of granite was broken free.
The winner darted forward but Teme grabbed them and held them back. Her last swing had broken through the wall and met emptiness. Surveyors picked mining sites by mapping the caverns well in advance and finding traces of ore, but it was impossible to follow every twist and turn. Sometimes miners broke into the caverns at a high point in the roof, or when a cave-in collapsed through a thin patch of stone. It might lead to an underground lake, an empty cave, or a nest of giant cave spiders. Whoever reported a new entrance first would get a copper medallion, worth twenty of the smaller coins, out of the pay of whichever miner broke through.
In a start the hauler reversed and dashed after their already running friend. Teme started to back away as well. Even a small hole into the caverns changed the winds below entirely. Everything from nomadic olms to the misshapen fiends of the third depths, close to the heart of the world, would sense such a breeze within a few hundred feet. While the average olm was peaceful enough, many large and violent beasts lurked in the deep places beyond the Neuern cities, and Teme had no interest in finding out which would show up first. However, as soon as her shadow no longer blocked the lantern she saw a glint in the darkness.
She stared ahead incredulously. An ore the color of moonlight glimmered all around the edge of the stone. With barely a thought to the beasts of the deep Teme waded back to the wall and struck again, breaking through the thin layer of granite and into a long shaft of darkness whose walls were precious ore. Native silver ore.
Eagerly she took a small sliver of crystal from her belt pouch and carefully tapped it against a wall. The crystal made a crackling sound and started to glow with a soft green light. With a flick of her wrist she sent the crystal spinning into the darkness. When it passed out of view 300 feet below the walls of the tunnel were still ore. She had found the greatest vein of her life and it was pure silver.
She kissed her sphongostrology book and ran away from the gaping hole to the underworld.
The Corpusglimmer brothers reclined in seats of the finest oak from the Edgeless Forest far to the south. The two always reclined in front of the workers. It lent them the impression of never being entirely dedicated to the conversation, which in most cases was true. Management couldn’t afford to be entirely dedicated to anything.
When a worker came to the company offices in Desertflax they’d either traveled fifty miles of dusty underground tunnels from the capital city of Galleystrife, ruled by the Fences of Time, then ridden the company goat cart from one of the small hillocks tucked into the foot of the mountain; or they’d ascended from the muddy pit below. The Corpusglimmers were a proper house, the sort of Neuerstoti that believed home was the place that gets cleaned when you’re away. They would never lean towards dirty people. Teme had been told this by Irvas Corpusglimmer when she’d first arrived. It was her only contact with either Neuer so far.
Teme held her filthy helmet a non-threatening distance from the brothers as she she explained for the third time the size of the silver cache. “It’s at least a size eight. There should really be a size nine for this kind of thing, but I’m not greedy. The price for a find half its size is 1600 silver pieces.”
Bersen Corpusglimmer, arguably the friendlier of the two, coughed loudly and brushed the flecks of saliva from his slate-blue triple-braided beard. “Ahem, that is the price for the largest category of tetrahedrite veins. You found a silver vein.”
Shuffling a bit under the double angry gaze of her employers and the painting of King Moldath Pagespoken that hung behind them, Teme gazed towards the ceiling to keep her nerves about her. She brushed her hands through her own muddy brown beard, and looked down at the certificate set on the table for her. Six silver coins worth of thrice-signed paper. “Yes, see, I figured since tetrahedrite is worth more because of the silver, then real silver aught to be worth maybe double that. Not so much less.”
Irvis Corpusglimmer scoffed and flapped his hands at her as if waving away an odor. “This is a copper mine. Our prices are for copper. A large cache of anything else is as good as tin.”
“But sirs,” Teme repeated patiently, heart pounding with anger and frustration behind a calm voice, “it’s the largest cache of silver in a hundred years. Surely that would be worth more than six coins.”
“It would have been ten coins if we hadn’t needed to pay to have one of our tunnels sealed off from the caverns.” Bersen gestured dangerously at a log book. “All of our maps will have to be updated, burrows re-designated. And silver would be worth less than lead if a vein the size you’re describing hit the streets all at once. The Verdant Alchemists would have it turned around into a thousand tons of alchemical nonsense in a heartbeat.” Irvis slapped his brother at the remark, and the two turned their twin glares on each other.
“Pay me in gold then,” said Teme levelly.
She was almost as surprised as the Corpusglimmers that the words had come out of her mouth. More than surprised. Had there been something special about the day’s plump helmet brew?
The man turned their glares back onto her with renewed hate. Even King Pagespoken seemed to be angry, his one sunken eye and his ocean green monocle glaring down from his picture.
“Take your money and go. Your employment here is over.”
Heartbeat ringing in her ears, she couldn’t be certain which of them had said it.
Staring down at the money in her hand Teme thought about everything she could have done with the equivalent of sixteen gold coins. Training as an alchemist was in reach, a warm home somewhere in the capital, more to eat and drink than endless plump helmets. She’d been lucky and successful, but someone had snatched it away. Now it was six coins, a promise of silver printed on flax. This couldn’t be allowed to stand.
The guild would help her, she was sure, and she started off towards the low stone building near the camp’s outer wall that marked the Miner’s Guild office.
For the last three generations the women of her family had been loyal to the Miner’s Guild. It was an institution that remembered that mining is one of the Neuern Gods’ great works, so her mother told her. Orbinn Truthspeaker started as a miner, so her mother told her.
Fath Rockcrewed, the local guild representative, was certainly more willing to lean towards miners than the company Neuerstoti were. As soon as Teme entered the office Fath was excitedly shaking her hand. “Teme Natterboars, wonderful, wonderful to see you. Are you here to discuss the upcoming fee negotiations?” He was all smiles; one could hardly see his beard through his smiles. “You’ll be happy to hear the guild has already ensured representatives wages are up, and are even now fighting to see that miner’s don’t take a decrease in pay.”
The words all came in a cluster and Teme wasn’t entirely sure she’d heard them right. “Well, I am here about pay. You see, I was fired today and-”
Fath took her hand and guided her to a cushion before a small stone table littered with knotwork writing. “Oh no! Teme, sit, sit, tell me everything.”
As she explained her find and the bosses’ reaction Fath settled back into his chair. It was another of the finely crafted oak thrones from the mining offices. This one carved with the symbol of the guild, a simple pickax.
Fath hummed and nodded as she told her story. When she’d finished he slapped himself on the knee. “Teme, the guild will not rest until your job is back in your hands. I have a meeting with the Corpusglimmers tonight, and I guarantee you’ll be mining again by week’s end.”
“And you’ll get me my money?” It didn’t seem like there was any question, but she felt strangely as though it was important to ask.
Fath smiled. Teme smiled. It was all going to work out.
The miner’s barracks sat in the corner of the mining camp furthest from the main gate. Two of its walls were shared with the wall that surrounded the camp. There was little more than a room with cots and a room with tables, but it served forty Neuerstoti at a time as a mess hall and bedroom. Meals were uniform, and the cots were soft stone affairs with little in the way of comfort. All at the cost of most of the money they made over the month.
As workers slowly trickled into the miner’s barracks a story began to emerge. Teme heard from Tekud that one of the tunnels had been sealed up and all the route maps had to be changed, Doren was telling everyone they saw about gremlins in the mine, Arane knew for a fact the caverns had been breeched since his brother was on the security team, and the general consensus was that something had come up from below and been locked back out. No one knew anything about a silver vein, and word of her firing didn’t seem to have gotten around either.
She supposed management didn’t gossip with the workers, but it was hard to hide a vein of ore from the masons that stabilized sealed shafts and the cavern security teams full of company bruisers. There was something odd about the entire day. Many people opposed the alchemists methods of producing silver through alchemy, but the substance had become so rare since the Bandit Queen killed Lorbam the Silver Prince. If the Corpusglimmers hated it so why not celebrate a find of true silver?
It reeked of the political.
Teme’s mother had been very explicit when it came to politics: she supported the guild, because the guild supported the miners. Beyond that it was the business of minor nobles that made up the functionaries of the guild: those too well off to do proper work properly. And well enough, they spoke to the bosses so as the miners wouldn’t have to.
The guild would sort it out. She supposed that should be comforting. Still, the plump helmets and rent of the bed would cost more now that she no longer worked for the company. A week was a long time to be without income so deep in the desert.
Smoke started to fill the small dining room. Barrels were hauled in by some of the company men and Tekud parceled out MildStimulantLeaves he’d been able to buy with the pay for his last find. In a way they’d all paid for it together, and when the next of them found a vein Tekud would have his hand out in return. When Teme’s find was announced she’d buy them all a night in real beds in town.
One of the barrels was full of roasted plump helmets, very few of them actually burnt, and the other held plump helmet wine. The combination day after day was vile, but at least it proofed against scurvy. Teme relished the smoke afterwords.
The first bit always went to spirits and ghosts. Some of them were local and probably as tired of the camp as the Neuerstoti were; some were relatives and might be in need of a smoke. If nobody stopped in by the time your turn finished they probably weren’t coming. Today no one stopped by. Hardly unusual, as the Barrel was the sign most notorious for quieting spiritual communication.
What was really strange about the day is that it was supposed to be lucky. The fungus had aligned, she’d found the biggest vein of her life; she’d earned enough, really, to train as an alchemist. She’d be able to live comfortably even after she’d paid her way into the new guild. It had all gone wrong. She was overlooking some key element of the sphonostrology equation. Some key.
If she moved quick enough she might still be able to grasp it.
People ate, people drank. Few had enough enthusiasm to seem like they enjoyed any part of it. Someone had set up a tacticus set and a few people stood around watching the game. No one touched the poorly tuned harp that had been left by Onec when she went back to the capital.
Life moved on.
Tomorrow she would get to work on reclaiming her luck.
Teme's story continues for free here https://www.patreon.com/posts/24922389