The group slept outside and were awoken the next morning by Leocrates’ wife. They ate smoked and salted pork for breakfast. Leocrates kept offering Hugh more and more pork, marveling at the enormity of his appetite.
When Leocrates went inside his home to get something, Zeke nudged Hugh.
“I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I am better with the common people than I am with powerful men like Leocrates. Maybe you can handle taking the lead on the negotiations from here?”
“If you have a question, just look to me, and I’ll give you a signal, okay?”
When Leocrates returned, he was wearing armor and holding his helmet. “So, I’ll entertain your final offers now.”
Hugh looked to Zeke, who nodded.
“What does Austeria want?” asked Hugh.
“What we want is to be left alone,” said Leocrates. “We don’t train ourselves to be mercenaries, we are soldiers. We fight to defend our home, not defend your home.”
“Polity is not my home,” said Hugh. “I fought to defend them.”
“Your foolish act does not compel me to follow suit.”
“It’s never foolish to defend the weak,” said Hugh.
Leocrates laughed. “If you defend weakness, you encourage weakness.”
“Far from it,” said Hugh. “I have defended the weak all my life, and it has strengthened not only them, but also myself.”
“Do you know what we would have done with your friend over there if he had been born here?” asked Leocrates, pointing to Zeke.
“I have no idea,” said Hugh.
Leocrates now pointed to one of the walls of the valley. “Up there is a cliff called. All defective and sickly infants are left there to die or be raised by those who want them. Most die from exposure and get picked apart by the birds.”
“Well,” Hugh said, glancing back to Zeke. “In that case, I’m glad he was born in Polity.”
“Then you are weak.”
“No,” said Hugh, closing his eyes and shaking his head. “I just have strength enough to spare.”
Leocrates squinted. “You fancy yourself a hero, do you?”
“Helping others doesn’t make me a hero, it just means I’m not a scoundrel.”
Leocrates stepped up to Hugh and stroked his beard. “You like helping people, huh?”
“Fine. I’ll tell you what. We’ll provide three hundred soldiers for one month during summer or autumn, but we want three hundred slaves, each carrying three pounds of gold, and you must personally take care of a worm problem in our mines.”
“Worms burrowed into some of our mines. They’re a pain to deal with. If you can clear the mines, you can have three hundred troops.”
“Five hundred troops,” said Hugh.
Hugh shook his head. “I’m not doing it for less than five hundred troops.”
“Five hundred slaves, each with five pounds of gold, and you can have five hundred troops for three weeks, which includes travel time, and you must keep them fed during their stay and for their return journey.”
Hugh looked back to Zeke, who nodded. “Fine.”
Leocrates walked off. “We need to go before the Elder Council. I can make your case for you, and ultimately it will be up to them. They will consider my recommendation, but I can’t promise anything.” He waved them to follow him.
Leocrates led them to an area that looked like a small amphitheater. He stepped up to a large bell and rang it, then took a seat, urging the others to sit down on the benches.
One by one, the six elders arrived over some time, during which Zeke explained to Hugh that they have an unusual form of Democracy in Austeria. Anyone who lives past the age of fifty is assigned a number, and every five years there is a lottery. The six numbers which are drawn are appointed as Elders, and they make the decisions, except those which pertain to direct defense of the city itself. The General, who is appointed through combat, commands the armed forces when under attack, and ostensibly decides where yearly raids will be conducted in order to maintain dominance in the region.
Since this was neither for raids nor defense of Austeria, the Council would need to be convened.
What’s more, the Elders do not decide based on a simple majority. Rather, every proposal must be approved by four out of the six Elders. If a decision comes back with four or more against, the individual making the proposal is denied from making any further proposals for ten years.
When all six Elders were seated at a long table facing them, Leocrates stepped forward.
“Polity wants to commission five hundred troops for three weeks, at the price of five hundred slaves and five hundred pounds of gold . And the big one will kill the worms.”
The Elders all looked at Hugh.
“Stand up, please,” said one of them.
“Thank you, be seated,” the Elder said. He slapped the table. Two more slapped it as well. They looked around at the others, one of whom sat back, arms folded. Finally one of the three remaining Elder slapped the table.
“Is that good?” asked Hugh.
Zeke smiled and nodded.
“Summon a page to lead the big one to the abandoned mines,” said one of the Elders.
Leocrates approached the bell, picked up a horn near it, and blew two long bursts. A boy came running up not long after.
“See to it he’s armed, then lead him to the abandoned mine,” said Leocrates.
The boy brought Hugh to a large training facility, where a man with an eye patch laughed when he approached. He motioned for Hugh to follow him, and he came to a large room filled with weapons hanging on the wall, on racks, even in piles on the floor. The man got Hugh a long spear and a circular shield.
“You can’t be bringing a tower shield into the mines,” said the man with an eye patch. “It’s cramped in there… shit, you’re going to be crawling most of the time, until you get to where the worms have actually burrowed.”
Hugh banged his spear and shield together, testing the feel of them. They were both very sturdy. “Seems fine,” he said. “What do I need it for?”
The man laughed and went off to get Hugh a long rope.
“Tie this to yourself and have the page hold the other end, that way you can find your way back, just in case your lantern goes out and you somehow survive.”
“Have you been there?” asked Hugh.
“How do you think I lost my eye?” the man asked, pointing to the patch, flanked by scars three thick scars that went from his forehead to the bottom of his jaw.
“A worm did that?” asked Hugh.
“Damn right a worm did that.”
Hugh scratched his head.
“A wyrm is a foul beast. Its head is that of a terrible lizard, its body is long and thin, like a snake, but it has powerful arms and claws like an eagle.”
“How many are in there?”
“Oh,” he scratched his head with one hand and adjusted his genitals with the other. “I would reckon about 30 or 40 or so by now, can’t be sure.”
“How will I find them all?” asked Hugh.
“Finding them is easy. There are signs with arrows directing the way to their nest. Once you’re there, they’ll signal for those who are out to return.”
“How big are they?”
“Well, they walk pretty low to the ground on all fours, but they rear up on their hind legs when they attack you. They wouldn’t go much above your waist though, to be honest. They aren’t any taller than me when they lunge.”
“Okay, thanks,” said Hugh. “Can I get a sword or an axe?”
“Sorry, son. You aren’t authorized to have one of those.”
“Okay, how about a mace?”
“Sure thing.” He brought Hugh a simple ball-headed mace. Hugh handed back the spear, swung the mace a bit, and nodded.
“Oh, you should know,” said the man, “They will smell you coming before you can see or hear them.”
After a few hours, the page had led Hugh to the entrance of the mine. He held the lantern in one hand, the mace and shield in the other, slowly progressing. With his back against the ceiling, he crouched and inched forward, guided by the arrowed signs. At one point, it got so narrow and so low that he had to crawl on his chest, pushing his gear out in front of him as he went.
Before long, he came to a large area where he could stand up. He raised the lantern and saw nothing. He rearranged himself and held the mace in one hand, the shield and lantern in the other.
He moved forward into the large chamber. He could not see the far walls. He decided to follow the wall to his right, keeping his back to it. Before long, he saw eggs, round and slightly larger than a cantaloupe. He looked around as he passed them, continuing to follow the wall.
Hugh turned to face the direction he thought he heard the sound, there was nothing there.
Hugh turned another way. He squinted in the darkness, having sworn he saw movement. “Who’s there?” he asked.
“Who’s in here?” Hugh asked.
“Please, someone, anyone.”
“I’m here to help,” said Hugh.
“No, don’t, Ahhh!”
There was no sound of a struggle. Hugh swung his lantern around, searching desperately for some sign of life.
“We’re not going to make it out alive, are me.”
“Who are you?” shouted Hugh.
There was a loud screech, and Hugh felt contact on his left leg. He looked down to see himself bleeding from large gashes. Hugh moved quickly to a narrow corner, set down his lantern, and faced the darkness.
To be continued…