The first day was boring.
After breaking fast Teme spent some of her precious remaining coin on bath water from the cistern the miners had been hired to dig after the initial exploration that had found copper in the rock. It was pumped up from a lake in the first cavern and still near freezing, but she bathed and scrubbed what she could of her clothing to wash away her bad luck.
She reread every pamphlet she owned on the Neuern zodiac and her single well thumbed codex to see where she’d gone wrong. As best she could tell all the signs pointed to luck but one: the missing sign of the Torch. It was recorded in sphongostrology predictions all the way until the death of the empire, but for the last several hundred years no one on the continent had caught a glimpse of it. Having once been the sign of clarity the missing sign became known as the reversal of fortunes; it was said when an event went exactly against what had been predetermined that the missing sign had turned in a foul direction in whatever strange realm in now roamed; moving in retrograde to the other signs.
After consulting another pamphlet on luck she rearranged her few possessions. The pamphlets themselves, handfuls of pulped and pressed cave moss copied extensively by hand by an army of scribes; she put away in her book with half upside down so bad luck spirits couldn’t read them. Her spare set of clothes she unfolded and refolded so that each piece had a limb of another piece inside of it so no spirits would find their way into them. The bundle of charms she kept tied up under her bed she polished until it shown.
All of this had taken her about four hours. By the third day she was pacing furiously all day and clung to any scrap of information she could weedle out of the other miners about the silver vein. Everyone was ordered out of not only her tunnel but the dozen tunnels around it. Work was going towards the west now, and the most anyone had heard as to why was the caverns had been breached. There was no word of the ore and none of her firing. Although she endured some stares when people realized she didn’t already know the new mining plans, no one outright asked her about it.
On the fourth morning after her firing she caught up to Fath on his way to the mining offices. He smiled his big, friendly smile and took her by the shoulder. “Teme Natterboars, wonderful to see you, wonderful. Heading into work?”
She stopped walking and boggled at him. “You mean I can go back to work?”
He stopped too, his smile faltering. For a moment he just looked at her, and then his eyes widened. “Ah, no, no, no of course not. I’m so sorry Teme, I’ve just been so busy lately I wasn’t thinking.”
“But you have spoken to the Corpusglimmers for me, right?” Teme asked with growing concern.
Fath covered his mouth as if shocked. “Why, the first day; of course I did. Now the whole of tunnel D is being walled up, so I’m afraid there’s nothing left of that vein for them to pay you for. However, you should know that the guild is fighting for you to return to your job as we speak. We would never allow one of our own to be fired without even an explanation.” He continued to stare at her with surprise until she realized she was meant to say something.
“Ah, I’m sorry?”
His huge smile returned in a blink, “ah Teme, no need to be sorry. We all know how difficult it can be to be out of work. Why don’t you take the cart out to Trebleblink or Steppecracked tonight and rent a place there while we get this worked out. Might do your mood some good.” With that he hurried on his way.
Spending time in the hillocks was out of the question. She could hardly afford to rent with what townies charged company workers. Everyone in the desert of Stride seemed to the think the real money was in mining, and inns demanded far more than what she could afford without a sure job at the end of it. No, no, there was a sure job waiting for her here. The guild would make it right, she was sure. Still, who knew when she’d have another find. If she spent all her money now she might still be mining a month before her next success.
There was something else odd that only occurred to her after some time away from Fath’s quick-tumbling way of speaking. All of tunnel D closed? Were they not going to mine the silver vein at all, even from below or around the sides? For a cavern breach to have closed a whole tunnel section there’d need to be at least two independent breaches and she hadn’t heard of one since the other day. Something about all of this was peculiar; suspicious. With a careful eye on the closed office door Teme hurried into the darkness of the mine.
The main shaft of the mine was little more than a very deep hole straight through soil and stone. It had a single wooden walkway spiraling down into the ground, barely a Neuer-and-a-half in width, and a central lift meant to carry up piles of ore. Mostly the haulers raced up the walkways rather than risk an ambush of their less enterprising fellows on the elevator. Their pace made the platforms shudder against their supports and forced the miners going up and down to press against the wall or risk knocking over the ever-moving streams of haulers. Back and forth, back and forth for their few coins a day. You could tell nightfall by their regularity.
Miners generally settled into their tunnels in the morning and worked through the day to maximize their chance of finding enough ore to pay for their evening food and beds at night. Besides a few groups of rushing haulers that passed her heading up and returning twice she didn’t see anyone until her feet touched down on the carved stone ramp that led to the tunnels proper. Tunnel A was set just below the first ramp, leading into the basalt that made up most of the mining site. The next three tunnels ran in the other cardinal directions as the ramp passed them, then there was a gap of a few hundred vertical feet before the granite layer where E began. The above tunnels would loop over and under themselves as they went and covered much of the intervening space.
There was no wall at the entrance, but if it had been blocked off it would have been done at the first place the tunnel split to preserve some of the intervening space for further mining. At least, that was the theory. Entire tunnel systems were rarely sealed up; even with multiple cavern breaches companies would often just rework their routes rather than give up possible ore. Had something broken out from the cavern? Maybe things had gone wrong and the company was trying to avoid a panic. She couldn’t think of anyone that had been missing the last few days, but miners came and went often enough that she rarely knew them all at any given camp. Monster attacks weren’t unheard of, sometimes even huge furry creatures from the second caverns.
Peering into the tunnel showed only a black expanse. Teme glanced up the pit, the sunlight already disappearing high above her and the lamplight dim. She’d only been above ground for all of two days and already it was harder to see in the dark of the mine. After a little thought over the cost of replacing more of her light sources she dug out another of her crystal slivers and tapped light into it.
The tunnel was eerie without the sounds of picks ringing through it. Usually within the first hundred feet she’d have been passed by a pair of haulers heading in or out at a run. Without the crowded breathy feeling of inhabitance the tunnels filled with the close weight of the stone. Everywhere around her that wasn’t already tunnel was ancient living rock from some long past volcanic age; stone from before the Fences of Time were a glimmer in the eye of a powerful war band; from before the Stride wandered down from the north and filled the valley with sand. When she wasn’t working it she remembered how powerful the stone was, to eclipse any Neuern accomplishments so monumentally.
The crystal finally shown on a back wall, built of the same granite that had been pulled out of the tunnel. So it was true: the entire complex of tunnels had been shut down. The higher tunnels would take ages to reach down this low and the company might even move on before they were able to. All that silver, her lucky find, lost. Her fist met the wall with a hollow thud.
“Did you hear that?”
She jerked her head around around, holding the crystal high. No one. Slowly she turned back towards the wall. The voice had been muffled but she was sure she heard it. Close by, perhaps in a tunnel that shared a well. The crystal buzzed in her hand and began to fade as she stood staring at the wall.
Was it possible someone was in tunnel D after all? She waited, breath held, for a few minutes; wondering if someone else was holding their own breath with an ear pressed to the far side. There weren’t supposed to be any people in this tunnel, but technically she wasn’t allowed in the mine at all since she’d been fired. If she was caught down here she could hardly provide an excuse for herself, strange happenings or no. Finally she heard a muffled cough. There was someone there, but if they really had heard her they’d decided the sound was nothing.
Whoever it was was still standing near the wall when she left half an hour later. Occasionally there would be a soft cough, perhaps some common ailment from the cold and dust of the mining tunnels, something to let her know the person was still there. She felt her way out of the tunnel quietly, the weight of the earth forgotten over the buzzing questions. Could it have been a stone spirit, wandering all the way up from the caverns out of curiosity and camping in the discarded tunnel? They often spoke at least some of the local Neuern dialects, and if another creature had caused the tunnel closure they might have slain it. Nothing that lived in the caverns did so without learning to hunt strange beasts. It would be odd for them not to use their own language with one another though. Even if it was spirits, why had she been able to hear them? Any number of mine accidents could crack a poorly constructed wall and in no time it’d serve no better than the hole she’d dug into the silver vein.
So there was someone in the tunnel where her silver find was sealed up. It didn’t take a devious mind to see that someone else had found out about it. There had been other people in tunnel D the day she found the vein; any one of them could have seen it on the way out. Or when the company sealed up the cavern entrance they’d dug down from C or up from E and installed this false wall. A mason, one of the camp guards… Four days was also a short time for a new tunnel to get all that way without at least several people working on it at once, especially if they were somehow smoothing down spare rocks and fitting them into a wall. Maybe a more devious mind would have some idea of how it could be done.
Before she reached the main shaft again a pair of haulers shot past the entrance, hands full of gleaming ore. So tunnel E had hit something. If only she still had her job she could be padding her wallet with extra coppers from mining out the new vein. Hopefully Fath would have good news by tomorrow. Mysteries were one thing, but she wouldn’t be able to stay to see one out if she didn’t have more income soon.
By the time she reached the entrance to tunnel C she’d passed most of the miners that had been working in the upper tunnels. The cache had obviously been large enough to draw the whole camp, all of them eager for the extra coppers they’d get for digging the ore from the rock. It gave her a chance to see who hadn’t already been working below, but it wasn’t much help. Since the Corpusglimmers wouldn’t pay for the silver vein whoever was after it would favor the pure silver over a small period of consistent pay. Moreover the path to the walled off tunnel could have come from above. Anyway, even with only twenty or thirty miners at the camp at any one time people came and went often enough that she didn’t know everyone’s name. She was sure she’d smoked with some of them before, but that might have been a year ago on another dig halfway across the mountain. Was everyone here that had been here four days ago? When there didn’t seem to be any more stragglers coming she followed behind the crowd until they swept into tunnel E. Haulers were already sprinting in and out with chunks of copper ore.
She settled in against a wooden support beam near the tunnel entrance and consulted her sphongostrology book for today’s predictions. The Barrel would be heading up the south side of the great chasm, the Roc began its last loop of the Bronze Citadel of the season: a good day for hidden things to come to light. But what about the missing sign? Did today actually bode ill for discovery?
The time until evening seemed to last forever. At least the mine was more interesting than pacing around the surface. Haulers were constantly running by, fighting over stone and ore, pushing past one another heading in and out of the tunnel. Pickaxes sounded down in the depths, echoing pleasantly. Her mother had called it the music of the mine; she had loved to sit and listen to the ringing of busy pickaxes even when she wasn’t working. To Teme it had just sounded like work, and she knew now that work was good when you could get it. Now, only being able to listen and not participate, it did sound like a kind of song. It was boisterous and chaotic, rarely were there any gaps where no pick was striking, but every so often the mine held its breath for just a second without metal tapping metal and it pulled at her to take up playing it as well. She whispered a prayer to Uriania of the Mines, Goddess of Miners and deep hidden places in the ground.
When everyone finally left for the night she took a careful head count. She couldn’t remember every face but there had been five empty beds the night before, one full row in the dormitory. Here were twenty-four Neuerstoti besides herself pouring from the tunnel entrance, filthy but bright with the promise of a days pay ahead of them. As the crowd filed out she followed, and slipped past the line waiting for admittance to the office. A quick glance revealed Fath in his office, the cafeteria empty, and no newly filled beds. It also showed that the cart to the local villages hadn’t yet left for the night. Teme sidled up to the driver, Uthret.
He was tall and clean-shaven, with the bearing of an obvious lowlander. A mercenary hired by the company to run the cart and charge what he wanted for the right to ride it. Lowlanders were hardly rare in this part of the world, being on the north side of the great chasm and with the Fences of Time’s close relationship with Glistenspire. Humans without beards were still unusual, but shaving was growing in popularity with the human aristocracy in Glistenspire, and so those seeking to look well to do had taken it up. She sighed inwardly as always about the fickleness and restriction of lowlander beauty standards.
He nodded at her. It would have surprised her if he knew her name. Even beside the lowlander tendency to ignore facial difference in Neuerns, her brief time sitting in the mines had left her with an obscuring coating of dust. It was just as well. She couldn’t be sure who knew about the ore vein but there was no risk in being careful.
Her mother had always cautioned her against secrets. They were slippery things, easy to wriggle loose and be stolen away by the Corvid. The best thing would be not to speak of her suspicions at all until she knew enough to decide what to do with them.
“Don’t know if you’ve heard but I just came into some money.” She waved the silver promissory slip without showing him the front, now annotated with the cost of her bath. No point in letting him know how much exactly she had on her, just that her claim was real.
He smiled at her, teeth gleaming white against his sun-golden face; it pushed a scar up closer to his shimmering gray eyes. “Is that so, friend? Then you’ll want to be riding along tonight. That will burn a hole in your pocket sitting around here.”
She shook her head. He had been working here since before she arrived but he still didn’t understand the rhythm of the camp. No one but the haulers, who returned to their homes or alleyways in the two villages each night, would be leaving until the big find was mined out. “I’m thinking about it, but I’m worried about running into someone in town. He’s been here on and off and I’m trying to avoid him, but it’s a big camp and I’m not sure who has been here lately. Have you seen him? Dark hair, beard-double braided, a bit shorter than me?” It could have described anyone. A Neuern driver would have told her the emperor had not in fact ridden with him today, or asked her to pull the other one. Uthret thought about it for a moment, stroking a second scar under his chin. He was covered with the marks of old fights. It was a marvel the man hadn’t died of some kind of infection by now.
“I don’t think any miners have been in or out the past few days. But I stop in both Trebleblink and Steppecracked. He’s not likely to be in both of them. Only five copper coins, and no cost to come back tomorrow.”
“I’ll have to think about it,” she said with her best smile.
No one had come or gone. At least not by cart. Someone else in camp had to have a way into the tunnel.
Arane parceled out handfuls of tobacco tonight. It was native copper, not a hint of silver, but it was a fairly large find. It might take a few full days of digging to get all of it. Teme shook his hand and thanked him. She might still be able to catch the end of this haul if Fath worked quickly.
Talk was all about the new ore vein but only peripherally. People said what direction they’d be digging next, whether it looked like there’d be more ore pockets further down, whether or not the mining company would keep going for another year in this location. Tunnel D had been completely forgotten.
Again as the ghost of her mother avoided her during the smoke; but someone else stopped by. Some more distant relative she couldn’t put a name to. They looked old, even for a ghost. Sort of more real, more defined. Either they’d been around a long time and done a lot as a ghost, or this was someone that had been important enough in life to leave a strong ghost behind. Without a word they accepted the first draw, and continued to sit silently until the two of them had finished their turn at the cigarette.
As she lay awake that night she wondered back at her day. She had broken into the mine, really, and wasted precious coppers on a light source when she needed them for food or travel. And for what? She could hardly go to the Corpusglimmers or the guild and say she had heard someone sneaking around in a mine she was no longer allowed into. Even if she knew who it was and knew they were mining her silver find, there was nothing she could do about it. Still…
It felt like an injustice, for someone to mine a vein she’d found but never been properly paid for. Her luck had brought her to just the right place in the tunnel to find the silver. She’d done it, and she was about to go off to the alchemy guild because of it. Anyone that took that silver now was taking it from her, in a way. They were stealing her luck. She owed it to herself to at least know who was doing it.
Only when she was nearly asleep did a small part of her whisper that she had been paid for her find. How odd a thing, to be paid anything at all for a vein no one was planning to mine.
Teme's story continues for one dollar patrons and up only here https://www.patreon.com/posts/25037673