- 6a (Argentum’s Song – PG)
Walt had planned to stay in Phoentown to try to gather more recruits and supplies over the coming days but he wanted Martha and Franklin earning their keep as soon as possible. So they were sent ahead with Earl the day after their contracts had been bought. Earl was miffed at having to cut his stay short but he took most of his frustration out on Martha. The two weir claws hanging from Franklin’s neck seemed to provide some protection from the foreman’s wrath.
Franklin had been too shocked by the quick turn of events to think of telling the truth about the weir necklace until it was too late. Ladin had signed Franklin’s contract over to Walt first and then given Franklin a look that told him what’s done is done, and he’d better be quiet about the falsehood for both of their sakes. Now it was a constant weight, the knowledge he would lose his position of relative privilege if he was found out. It was much worse that it was Martha who held that power over him. He sorely regretted having let those snide remarks fall in the Silver Cog’s kitchen. He should have played it cool and kept his options open. He’d just been away from court intrigues for so long it hadn’t occurred to him Ladin might double cross him too. Now Martha was in a position to really extort something out of him. He’d have to stay on his toes if he was to find something to use as leverage against her before it was too late.
However, even with the power it gave her over him in the future, Franklin was surprised Martha hadn’t let it slip, with all the strain Earl had put on her the past five days. Earl seemed to get some sort of sick pleasure out of scaring and humiliating the girl. Every morning he’d tie her hands with rope and bind a cloth round her eyes to protect the mine’s ‘secret location’. Then, in the evening, he’d force them both to listen to weir stories around the campfire. Like the one about what had happened to Cookie, the previous cook. It was bad enough for Franklin, trying to figure out fact from fiction in those tales. He often just wanted to tune the brute out but knew he didn’t dare in case something he learned actually came in handy when he was called on to ‘fulfil his duty’ in the future. It must have been even worse for Martha, knowing she was marching into the monsters’ habitat without even the defence of sight.
Franklin had expected Martha to break down and spill his secret the first day. Even if only to cause Franklin to join her in some of her misery. The girl was much stronger than he had expected though. He hadn’t seen her shed a single tear. She’d stayed strong when Bart bribed a bureaucrat to skip to the front of the queue to register their contracts, thus speeding their departure and making a goodbye with her parents impossible. Not even the long, hard trek blindfolded, or Earl’s verbal barrage had broken her. This was a mixed blessing as it meant his secret was likely safe a little while longer, but it also meant she would be a formidable opponent.
- 6b (Argentum’s Song – PG)
Earl turned around and roughly pulled the blindfold from Martha’s face.
“We’re nearly there now, ye’ll become familiar with the clearings near the mine anyhow so ya needn’t wear this anymore. I’ll take the ropes off of ya too, but ya’ve to promise not to try to do anything stupid. Understand that my threat isn’t that I’d come after ya, it’s that I wouldn’t. Ye’d be dead within a day trying to wander ‘round these parts without knowing where ya were going.”
Martha nodded that she understood and Earl pulled the knots free.
“Well kids, welcome to yer new home.”
Franklin looked around and shivered. It looked remarkably like the clearing where the barbarians had left the caravan, only even less well travelled. It was rocky and snowy with a mixture of evergreen and deciduous vegetation. An old growth forested area, though not as densely wooded as it would have been in a valley. However, part of that could have been caused by humans. As they walked, it became more common to see stumps and small clearings felled by axe work. Soon they reached a large cleared area the size of a modest courtyard. It lay right in front of a cliff face, in the centre of which was a large single oak door, reinforced by two bronze straps.
Earl walked straight up to the door and removed a leather string from around his neck. Two heavy metal keys dangled from it as he did. He took the larger and used it to unlock the door, then scraped it inward and gave a sarcastic bow.
Franklin barely had to duck to get under the door, and the ceiling was high enough that he didn’t have to at all once he was inside. However, he found himself arching his neck none the less, as he wasn’t used to having a roughly carved rock surface quite so close to his head. Before closing the door, Earl lit a lantern and hung it from a bolt that had been driven into a small crack in the ceiling.
“Help me with this.”
Franklin dropped the large pack he’d been carrying on the floor and helped the foreman push a wooden chest up against the door. It too was reinforced with bronze straps, though it felt much lighter than it looked. Earl swore.
“This things nearly empty. What have the boys been up to while we were gone?”
Earl retrieved his lantern and marched to the far end of the cave. As he moved, Franklin realized that what he had thought was a solid back wall actually contained a large tunnel descending on a shallow grade.
- 6c (Argentum’s Song – PG)
“Arny! Bart! Git yer arses up here!”
Franklin heard a whoop echo up the interior of the mountain and before long a mid sized hound came bounding up to Earl’s feet followed by two human shapes shuffling their way into the main room.
“Earl are we ever glad to see ya back so soon.”
The voice was raw and gravelly, as if the speaker had worked for years in a coal mine before being recruited to this place. The dog came over and sniffed at Franklin and Martha’s heels. Franklin gave it a sharp kick and it hopped back growling softly.
“Ya have no idea the tribulations we’ve been through since y’all left.”
“Besty she was -”
Earl slapped the shorter of the two miners in the face, promptly shutting him up.
“Bart, where is the silver? The chest’s as empty as it was when we left.”
Bart rubbed his jaw with one hand while pointing the direction he had come with the other.
“Why it’s jist down the corridor here, jist around the corner.”
“Well to hide it of course.”
“Ya’ve got a perfectly serviceable, lockable chest. Why on earth would ya be hiding it? Quit making excuses and tell me what ya’ve been doing all this time.”
“Well that’s jist it sir. The perfectly lockable chest … she’s locked.”
“Which is why we left ya with the spare keys, so ya could – ”
Earl caught his breath and then grabbed Bart by the whiskers and pulled him up to the light.
“Ya lost the keys.”
“Well that’s what I was tellin when ya smacked me in the face now isn’t it? Besty she was makin an awful racket in the night so Arny, me and Sniffly we went out to see what was the matter.”
“What was she doing out in the night? I told ya to keep her in here with ya’ll when I left.”
“Aw Earl, ya know ya can’t house train a goat.”
- 6d (Argentum’s Song – PG)
Earl released his beard and backhanded him across the other side of the face.
“That’s it, I ain’t tellin any more of the story if yer jist gonna beat on me. Ask Arny.”
Arny must have picked up on Earl’s desire to get to the point as he simply said.
“The goat she was shredded to bits. We got spooked and run back. When we got back we were lucky the door was ajar for Bart had dropped the keys.”
“That’s a festerin’ lie ya filthy puss vomit. Ya had the key and ya know it to be true.”
Earl must have trusted Bart’s word over Arny’s since his next blows rained on the tall gangly miner causing him to drop his gear.
“Ow … don’t be mad before ye’ve at least seen the silver we brought up.”
“Ya … we struck a new vein while ya was gone … must be twenty four weight worth of raw ore we’ve pulled up already and it ain’t anywhere near dried up yet.”
Earl pulled his next punch.
“Twenty four weight?”
“Yes come and see.”
Franklin was curious what twenty four weight of raw silver looked like and followed the miners down past the first bend. Turned out that, at least in the dim light, it looked like a huge pile of rock. However, it must have been genuine since after looking a small piece over Earl was all smiles, clapping the two miners on the back and telling what a great job they’d done. To celebrate he ordered Martha to cook up a ‘feast’ out of the rabbit they had snared the previous night and the few vegetables they had brought back. Then he cracked open a barrel of rum and ladled it out. After serving Bart and Arny he motioned for Franklin to come over to him. Placing his hand on his shoulder he leaned in close.
“I’m gonna celebrate with me boys. Yer on watch tonight. First though lug that silver up into the chest. Ya can take these keys, hang them on the peg beside the door in the morning.”
Earl folded the keys into Franklin’s palm and moved his face even closer.
“Jist make festering sure ya don’t lose them. They’re the last set and you don’t have twenty four weight of silver to bribe yerself out of my fury if ya do.”