The Dredge

So I\’m revising Homes…again. I hate revising. I want to hang this one up and start something new, but if I want this book to be as good as it can be and ever do anything more with it than complain as it sits on my Google Drive, then it has to be polished. Some authors work for a decade on their first fantasy novel and I\’ve been at this one, in any dedicated sense, barely two years, so I guess it\’s alright. 

This is one little chapter I\’m especially happy with. We are about a third through the story and the Dredge had not yet been introduced. I hope all the chapters end up feeling this way: a bit literary, funny, with a good smooth pace.

    Another day in the mines.
    Dwarves mining are like Men farming. It is the most essential and basic profession they can wield. The sounds of chipping and crumbling were the music of their day, the same as the sounds of wind and crunching soil are to a farmer toiling above ground. One hundred or so dwarves stood in a row in a tunnel lit by firelight. Worms were not allowed in the mines. Each swung with a huff and relocated another few inches of stone. The rhythm of their work came and went in waves; time and again groups of a dozen or so found themselves picking away together in the same rhythm and mined as one for a few brief strokes, then the mad clinking resumed. Their focus was on the work, not making it beautiful.
    Ingbi watched all of this with a quiet pride. He did not smile or laugh, or even encourage his workers for that matter, for he was a serious dwarf and these were serious times with serious consequences. Off the job he often smiled and laughed and encouraged, but never on the job. For he was the Dredge, the chief of the Miner’s Cog, and heir to House Badgate after his old father Oskladgon (Oski, to his friends). The work of the Dredge was almost strictly administrative, traditionally: he surveyed the mines, heeded reports from the Fargoers about where to mine next, made sure orders were fulfilled to the Forgers’ and small-time smithies and foundries, approved new maps, and ensured his miners were happy enough to do the work. And then that Tom-fool Tad had to ruin his comfortable job and put him back in the mines.
    Oh, Ingbi could have chosen some of his other foremen, or some of the more competent miners and bosses to set things in order, but this was too severe. Not only had Tad made a fool of himself, flooding a tunnel and shaft and nearly killing two miners in the process, one of the finest Forgers was now in exile. Beyond that there was this new gang of idiots roaming around, preaching mayhem and bedlam. Ingbi didn’t like it, and so now every day he was at a different dig site, ensuring the work was done and done properly, keeping rowdy foremen calm, and otherwise inspiring confidence in the miners and their Cog. Truth be told he enjoyed it. Part of what had made the dwarf a good Dredge was that, somehow, he genuinely found pleasure in the act of mining. Assuming a position of responsibility had made him a desk-rider. Honorable work, and not without its perks, but there was nothing like going home exhausted after a day in the mines to a good meal and a stiff drink.
    He was a stocky dwarf with a big belly and broad shoulders. He liked to keep his black-gray beard forked and often stroked it to keep it that way; he refused to use lard or other additives to fix his hair in place, per the fashions of the day. On the site this day he wore a dirty old tunic, which he would not mind getting dirty. He’d had the emblem of the Miner’s Cog stitched on the front, though, so that none would forget his position: a single cog with a mattock pricking it on either side, a diamond in the center circle of the cog.
The Dredge’s pleasant thoughts and daydreams, lulled upon him by the sounds of mattocks upon stone, were swiftly interrupted when shouts sprung up further down the line towards the mine’s entrance. The Dredge snapped-to and marched right towards the sound, his foreman trailing him like a duckling.
    It was more of those damned idiots.
    A pair of them swaggered down the tunnel, a mushroom tender named Filvr or Filthy or something, and another one that Ingbi did not know. They carried weapons and torches and stupid grins and caused an immediate and mixed response from the miners. A third of them, all scattered down the line, booed as they recognized them. They blew raspberries and made the thumbs-down sign and yelled things like, “Go home, rabble rousers!” Another third cheered and smiled and clapped them on the backs. They saw them as freedom fighters doing the work of God, protecting the Homes. The final third did nothing, but all of them stopped working.
    Ingbi sighed and swallowed his rage. “Foreman,” he said without taking his eyes off the pair of interlopers, “Get these miners back to work.” The foreman nodded and went off barking orders. When the two dwarves walked past the Dredge without so much as a nod, his rage boiled over. Fortunate for them, he was a civil dwarf of some high birth and tried his best to be polite, even when his nature would have set him swinging.
    “We do not allow folk not of the Miners Cog on or around an active dig site without specific purpose,” he stated formally. “What purpose have you here?”
    One of them, the one Ingbi had not seen before, stopped and smirked. “I thank you for allowing us! We are on a mission of war and must use this tunnel of yours to find our way. I promise you we will only disrupt your work one more time, on our return journey. Though surely the chief miner will keep his workers in line through any interruption.”
    Ingbi imagined putting a mining pick through his stupid grin.
    “None have been further than this tunnel, save a few Fargoers, and their reports have not yet reached my desk. If you wish to risk your neck falling into some pit or the like, then more’s the better. Get you gone. And see to it that you return by another way, or I’ll use your head to take some of this wall down.”
    One of the two bristled at that, the other just smiled and nodded and shoved his friend along. In a few moments they were out of sight and, Ingbi hoped, out of mind. Their torches, little shreds of light in the great dark of the underworld, turned around a bend in the tunnel and the disruption was over. His foreman had done well; most of the miners were back to it, hacking at the wall or toting the loose rocks and debris away to be stored in one of the ware-caves for building. The few who lingered, staring back in the direction the two rebels had gone, hoping against hope for some sign of action, battle, or fire, required only a stern look from the Dredge and they were back to the business of mining. Work resumed, the steady chinks found their rhythm again, and Ingbi was lost in the music of his work. How long he lost himself he could not say. Minutes? Hours? The song kept him warm and he was sure some of the miners felt it too. A rhythmic humming rose and fell amongst them, old songs they’d forgotten the words too. Before long the working day would be over, gone in a flash for those who still knew how to revel in it. The rest, generally those who supported the little rebellion, would whine in their hearts and mutter into their beards until the Clangers called the end of the working day.
    And then a dissonance entered the song. The pitter-patter of feet on stone, so unlike the steady clinks of the miners at their work. Ingbi stirred again and looked towards the sound, already grinding his teeth in anger. Sure enough it was those two buffoons again. Too bad Ingbi was not a betting dwarf. The pair was running this time, still holding their torches whose flames whipped about.
    “Hey!” cried the Dredge. “What did I tell you louts? Come here!”
    “No! No!” said the one with the grin. His grin was gone. He tried to dip past the Dredge, who now stood in their path, but could not; Ingbi had him by the collar now and threw him against the wall. All work stopped. Even the foreman was put off by the sound of the dwarf’s head snapping into the rock.
    “No! Please! Dredge!” cried Filvr. “Look!”
    He held out an old hand ax, somewhat worn with age but still still sharp.
    “Oh, what,” said Ingbi, “You’re going to use that on me now?”
    “No, no! Just look!”
    The Dredge dropped the interloper and took the ax in hand, turned it over.
    “Now what is this?”
    “The…the Quinticog!”
    Ingbi shrugged and shook his head with as much annoyance as he could manage.
    “D-d…dark dwarves! We went to set another mushroom field afire, which we did, and then we got bold. We went further into the d-deep, trying to find where the enemy would strike from. Then Little Adil here tripped on the ax. We were so…so spooked by it, and by then the…the field fire was out of control. We have to get to Barne! We have to go!”
    “No, you maniac! You have to take this to your Lady. Has Barne taken your wits as well as your courage? There is an order to things in these Homes, you see, and I’ll be killed before I let a half-crazed bartender disrupt that order. Now–hey!”
    The other dwarf, Little Adil, had recovered from his encounter with the tunnel wall and snatched the ax from Ingbi and ran. Filvr reacted quickly and took off after him, knocking the foreman out of the way before he could stop them. When some of the miners tried to intervene it was anarchy: the dwarves following Barne dove and tackled the others who had moved to stop the two from escaping. Fights broke out, shoving and punching and beard pulling. The Dredge roared, blind with rage. That alone stopped half of the scuffles, the fists of Ingbi stopped the rest. He cuffed their ears, kicked those who were wrestling on the ground, and even punched one dead in the eye when he would not stop grappling with the foreman. In the end, calm was restored but the working day was shot, a lost cause.

    “By my father!” swore Ingbi, “I will see that Barne hanged!” His cry echoed and chased Filvr and Little Adil all the way through the mine. They did not take that way again.

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