The place looked more like a kicked anthill than an iron mine. Built of heavy bulwarks of timber and stone, its arms curved out from the mountain like a mother's arms around her belly. A hundred eyes peered out of the crenelated sockets, sweeping the land. The gate was simply a drawbridge that spanned a dry moat filled with dust and splintered stakes. Pitch or filth lined the bottom—it was impossible to tell from so far away. A portcullis hung ready to fall, cutting the people inside off from anything short of heavy bombardment. Parties of guards, some on foot and some on horse, went in and out, regular as an old man on a steady diet.
"Place is a fortress," Gunner said.
Chaplain snorted. "It's also poorly built."
"A poorly built fortress is still a fortress," Gunner grumbled.
They lapsed into silence, lying or crouching along the ridge top and drawing as little attention to themselves as possible. The guards would be unlikely to notice the band unless they moved quickly, or stood out against the backdrop of the scrub trees and hardy bushes. So they sat, waited, and watched.
"Looks as if our friend Robbes gave the commander quite the earful about what we did to his little caravan." The Lieutenant barked a rough, sharp sound that was as close as he got to laughter. "They're giving us a right heroes' welcome."
"Tell me again why we want them to know we're coming?" Trilaina asked.
Lieutenant Hook snapped his spyglass closed and slid it back among the legion of pouches slung around his narrow hips.
"It's all part of the plan." The Lieutenant scuttled back from the precipice like a crab, and the others followed, slinking and scraping out of the line of sight. Once they'd slipped into a wash, they knelt and drew close. The Lieutenant brushed the sand flat and drew in the dust. "Now pay attention."
The old man laid out the mine in small lines, giving a rough distance from the front gate to the rise they'd been watching from. He mapped out the paths visible from where they'd been sitting, like veins stretching out from a hard little heart. He carefully included the hundred yards or so of completely clear land leading up to the walls. Gunner reached over and added a few branches, his lines thicker and harder. No one questioned the gnome's eyes.
"This is our position here." The Lieutenant drew an X with his fingernail, light enough that it was barely noticeable. "We've got some daylight left, and until that fades we'll be most vulnerable. So we're going to hold this position until night falls, and when it does, we'll-"
Denna growled, jutting her head forward across the map at Trilaina. The half-elf's eyes widened and she backed away, holding her hands out in front of her.
"Denna," Gunner chided, putting a hand on her mane.
That was when an arrow buried itself in the she-wolf's side, turning her growl into a yelp of pain as she fell over.
The Irregulars stood, backs together and hands on hilts. In the time it took them to reach their feet, both ends of the little ditch filled with Molthuni soldiers. The rag-tag Andoren squad stood at the bottom, looking up at a trap they'd never even noticed. The ambushers had arrows knocked, bows taut as heartstrings and eyes cold as winter wine. A man stepped out of the scrub from behind Trilaina, pulling a new arrow from a quiver on his hip.
"Put your hands up and surrender," he commanded.
"I told you they'd be here!" A voice called from the left flank. "I saw the flash on the lens!"
"Now's not the time, Theron." The older man spoke without taking his eyes off the five interlopers and their wounded wolf. "If you do not put your hands up and surrender, I will have my men open fire."
The captured Andorens raised their hands slowly, gazes sweeping back and forth over the outriders that had clearly been dispatched to comb the foothills. They'd apparently doubled back. There was no give in them, and no relaxation as their prisoners-to-be showed empty hands.
"Irregulars," the Lieutenant said with a death's-head smile. "Smoke 'em if you got 'em."
Glass broke, and thick, yellow smoke rose in a plume around the little group. Both flanks of ambushers loosed, smooth and cool. The Lieutenant swore, and there was a gnome-sized thud as Gunner went down. The soldiers reached for more arrows, uncertain whether their targets were even still there.
Then the smoke cleared, and madness descended.
Twin daggers flicked through the air, tumbling end over end towards the left flank. One archer cried out, his words bubbling from his throat in a bloody spray. Another dropped his bow, clutching at fingers cut to the bone. Garm exploded up the hill, teeth bared in a tusked snarl that would have put fear into iron. Another Molthuni—the one their captain had called Theron—loosed a shaft, but the half-orc slapped it out of his path. His fist swung back like death's own pendulum, breaking bones and sending the injured bowman to join his companion.
Bowstrings twanged again on the right flank, but before they could be drawn a third time a single glass vial arced out of the vanishing smoke. It shattered, and bottled lightning crackled, snarling over the soldiers and leaving them twitching. Chaplain came on behind it, undaunted, swinging her hammer in a wide arc. It crushed leather and bone alike, doing its nasty work at a piston pace while the cleric drove the men down like tent stakes.
"Bastards!" The leader of the Molthuni outriders cried out as he drew an arrow’s fletching to his cheek. "You bastards, I'll—"
Whatever else he would have said was cut off by the twang of Gunner's infernal engine. He unleashed a full load of bolts in the blink of an eye, and they flew like darts flung by a giant, slamming into the trunk of the leader's chest with nary a finger's breadth between them. The man fell back, his arrow streaking for the low scudding clouds.
"Regroup!" The Lieutenant snarled, waving away the last of the smoke. "Status!"
"One prisoner, sir," Garm called. He marched Theron down the hill, one of the man's arms twisted up behind his back and Garm's hand around his throat, making certain he couldn't scream. Trilaina retrieved her daggers from the dead men and drug a double trench along each side of the soldiers' necks, just to be safe. Chaplain said a quick prayer, then rifled pouches and weapon belts looking for anything useful. Denna whined and licked Gunner. The gnome coughed, shifting on his back.
"Easy, girl." He grunted and tugged at the arrows stuck in his armor. The Lieutenant put a foot on the gnome's chest and pulled, the bent-tipped barbs grating on steel.
"Looks like the extra chain came in handy after all," The Lieutenant said.
Gunner grinned. "It's a heavy bastard, is all," he said. "Help me up, I need to see to Denna before she makes herself worse."
Chaplain gave him a hand and Gunner struggled back to his feet. He caught the she-wolf's teeth on his bracer and shushed her. He pulled, she bit, and the offending shaft slipped free with barely a protest. Gunner whispered, speaking in the voice of wind and rain while he dragged his fingers through Denna's fur like he was raking out a bloody burr. The wound came free, its lips sealed as if it had never been. Only a small bald patch gave testament.
"And here it was I thought she still didn't like me," Trilaina said.
Denna growled, a low rumble of thunder deep in her chest. Trilaina retreated a step, and Gunner scratched the wolf under the muzzle.
"She doesn't," he said. "Bastard's lucky he came from behind you. She started growling at Garm, I'd have shot first and asked questions later."
"Not my fault I'm prettier," Garm said.
Theron's eyes were wild, and he clawed at Garm's hand. The boy—which is what he really was, now that they saw him up close—may as well have tried to chop down a tree with his cheekbones.
"Beauty's in the eye of the beholder," Trilaina said, the words dry as hardroot cider. Garm dropped the boy, coughing and gagging, in front of the little map they'd drawn only moments ago. It was scuffed, but still legible.
"If you're going to kill me, just do it and get it over with." Theron had probably meant it to sound defiant, but it came out a gallows whisper. The Lieutenant hunkered across the map, looking at Theron as if he was an out-of-season fruit. Something to be picked when the opportunity presented.
"Whether you die here with no one but the gods to see is entirely up to you," Hook said.
Theron waited. The Lieutenant waited. It didn't take long for the tow-headed captive to crack.
"You'll never get in that gate," he said. "The mine is locked down and everyone's watching. Commander Hartwick has already sent word to the Cettigne garrison requesting reinforcements. They’ll be here by midday tomorrow."
"Fortunate we never intended on going in that gate," the Lieutenant said, half his mouth curling in a sly grin. "Show me where the Deserter's Door is, and you get to live."
"The Deserter's Door?" Theron asked.
The Lieutenant snapped his teeth, and the boy jumped.
"Everyone's determined to prove themselves a fool." The Lieutenant leaned forward, nostrils flaring. "The secret escape route discovered by a work crew ten years ago. It was closed up tight and guarded. It's been kept as a final option by the mine overseer since then in case of overwhelming assault, since it comes out the back side of that little hill from the front gate. You strike me as a curious boy, Theron. I'm sure you've seen it."
"And if I have?" Theron asked.
"Then you tell us where it is, and you walk," the Lieutenant said.
"Just like that?" Theron’s disbelief was obvious.
"Of course." The Lieutenant leaned in close to the boy. "The brand on your right arm labels you a conscript. You're a slave trying to make good. If you tell us where this gate is and you go back, you'll be killed for cowardice and consorting with the enemy. But if you walk away from here right now—well, there's no one to say what really happened up here, is there?"
Without hesitation, Theron stretched out an arm and marked a spot northeast of the mine's main gate. Lost in the crags, it would take them until nightfall to get there if they didn't want to be seen.
The Lieutenant smiled. "Good boy."
"So what now?" Theron asked.
The Lieutenant nodded, and Garm's fist crashed into the side of Theron's face. Blood ran, and the boy's eyes didn't quite know where to look as he tried to sit up. His teeth were still in place, and nothing appeared broken.
"You walk away." The Lieutenant stood. "That will swell up right pretty in half a turn or so. You walk out of the foothills toward the river. If someone stops you, you tell them you were sent running and got turned around—the bump to the head addled your brains. That bruise will corroborate your story and keep you from looking too much like a deserter. If you're lucky, you'll make it all the way out of Molthune, and we'll never see you again."
Theron sat, the words sinking in slow. Finally he hauled himself to his feet and offered a shaky salute. The Lieutenant returned it, and the boy walked away until he was out of sight.
"Conscripts," Garm said, and shook his head.
The Lieutenant jerked his chin toward the mountain. "There's more out there," he said. "Irregulars, keep your mouths shut, and your ears open. There are people counting on us in that mine, and I would hate to disappoint them."
Coming Next Week: Plotting a prison break in Chapter Three of Neal F. Litherland's "The Irregulars"!
Neal F. Litherland is the author of several other stories, including the novella "Summer People" and the short story "Heart of the Myrmidon," part of the post-apocalyptic romance anthology End of Days. He holds a Bachelors of Criminal Justice from Indiana University. For more information, visit facebook.com/NealFLitherland.
Illustration by Lindsey Wakefield