Oddom lay on her back and kicked the hatch. It was built well, good and springy, nice heft to it but counter-weighted, and it hung in the air nicely, then came back down, and she kicked it up again. She could just see Zulban at the end of the long corridor, if she pushed her face to the stone floor.
There was a goblin up here, hissing and spitting between the bars of its cage. Oddom had no idea how long it had been here, but there were rat weed seeds in its cage, and it looked about to die of starvation anyways-- of course they all did. It was still alive, a miracle, its legs just stumps but no sign of infection.
"Don't worry, No-Legs. Not today." The goblin just hissed. Oddom wasn't even really sure they were capable of speech.
She was more interested in Zulban. She felt safe here, a good seventy yards away, peeking through the hatch. More than safe-- Oddom felt a little cowardly. She watched Zulban breath, in and out, weak and slow, no ribs but that bronze carapace rose and fell, and there was the dust too. She wondered how far she could make it during one of Zulban's breaths. The length of the corridor? Impossible, but the dust never travelled that far. Could she snicker-snatch the thing's brain from its body before a breath?
She didn't need to, of course. Zulban was contained. And there were always the spikes. The lever wasn't far from here. A couple of pulls and it would be over. Oddom had watched Vabok do it with the leech that had followed him in.
She was just looking. It was an off month for the Pinnacles. There wasn't a lot for Oddom to do on off-months.
They probably wouldn't have needed off-months, but Kol had asked her to put Urist in the Pinnacles. Oddom had been offended, of course-- she ran the milita, not Kol-- but the truth was, it was time for a new squad anyways, with all the children growing up, and the kids wouldn't ever learn anything if nobody showed them, not in twenty years on top of a tower.
Oddom thought she knew why Kol wanted Urist in the pinnacles. Kol had treated that child like a princess, at least until she'd had her second, and a recruit would be safe in a seasoned squad. By the time a recruit made it to the fight, the fight would be over. But that wasn't the way it was going to work.
Zulban looked skinnier than last Oddom had been here. Older, too, somehow. It wriggled on the floor on three pairs of broken legs, more worm than insect now. At least it wriggled when it moved. Most of the time Zulban just lay there. If you didn't look carefully, you'd think it might be dead.
* * *
After her hair was cut, Urist tried on the helmet. Too large before, now it nearly slid forward across her brow.
She'd waited all of her life for her armor, thinking, "Now, now it begins," but Erush hadn't even recognized her when he handed the pieces, mismatched, ill-fitting, lighter than silk, and bright blue. Urist hadn't said anything. She wasn't even sure what she had been expecting. She'd seen the Guard occasionally in their steel as visitors were brought to the daycare, but she understood that steel must be too valuable to waste on a recruit like herself. Even Oddom, who was now duchess for half the year, as Oddom had put it, was mostly clad in the weightless blue plate, with only scattered bits of steel. Lanterndark was supposedly chosen for its steel, but Urist hadn't realized how precious the gray metal was.
It had been hot in the daycare, but it was hotter on the towers. By day, the sun battered harder than training axes, there above the foliage, and by night, the towers acted as a chimney for all the heat stored in the mountain. Urist had learned better than to complain. "If the sun's too bright, then get your back to it!" as blows rained on her. "If it's too hot, then work up a sweat!" And the sweat had run down her hair, sticky on her forehead, hair in her eyes and she couldn't fix it, not under the helm, and when she'd lifted it, that spinning flint had drawn blood, nearly knocked her down. "Helms on when you're under the sky!"
"But what about Tosid?!" she'd cried, exasperation and pain getting the best of her, that, and the sense of injustice. Oddom had thrown again then, but Tosid's mailed hand was at his unhelmed face before the stone was, batting it out of the air without even looking, and he was back at his mustaches.
Oddom wasn't even particularly fast. Urist could get the better of her, almost half the time, and that with just a few weeks. Tosid should be leading the Pinnacles.
Urist looked at herself in the brook's rippling reflection. She hadn't even thought about it, but her hair looked just like Oddom's now.
* * *
Oddom laughed, raised her boots to lay them on Kol's desk, then winced with pain and thought better of it. Axedwarves weren't supposed to get arthritis.
"Steel? And what will we face the goblins in? Sterling silver?"
Kol was serious. "Sterling silver's for the buckets. We have the adamant now."
Oddom was dressed in the blue armor herself, except for the few pieces she couldn't bear to give up. "Kol, we can't keep on like this. You know what they say about Workpuzzles. I don't know if it's superstition or not, but I'm not eager to find out. Steel's good enough for goblins." She hesitated, not sure if she needed to say it. "But not sterling silver."
"Deep mountain screamers, Kol. You know what I'm talking about."
Kol turned her head to one side, eyes at the ceiling. Another one of her poses, for when she wanted to let you know she was thinking something over. It infuriated Oddom.
"I want to show you something, Oddom." Kol rose from her throne to the door, reaching on pointed toes for the crossbow that hung above it. "Gremlins, sometimes," she explained. "You coming?"
Oddom rolled her eyes. It was always like this with Kol. Couldn't just tell you straight out. But she rose, with that eerie echo of adamant against adamant, and followed.
It didn't look like the kind of path gremlins might take. Oddom followed Kol deep into the mountain through locked doors. The last, a shiftwall, Kol lowered with a lever, then beckoned Oddom in ahead.
It was a prison, or a private zoo. A storeroom, filled with cages, and curiously hot. It smelled of the sea that Oddom had once visited. Great bonfires burned from the corners, but low, so the shadows of bars flickered across the floor, the wall, the ceiling. Oddom saw the cages then, bars of lightning, and cursed quietly. Adamant arms were dangerous; adamant furniture, debaucherous. Was this what Kol was wasting the mountain on? A private zoo?
It spoke then, with a child's voice, from the cage nearest. "Oddom Rigothroder Etnarfesh. I am Nekgistrib. There isn't much time--"
"They'll lie to you, Oddom." Kol spoke loudly, to be heard above the prisoner.
"—But you can stop this right now, if you open the cage. We can stop her." The fires' light twisted and Oddom saw the thing in the cage, a face pressed almost against the bars, a white granular face, a gaunt thing of salt.
Voices from the other cages repeated musically, a chorus of children, "We can stop her."
"It has to stop, Oddom Rigothroder Etnarfesh. We don't bleed." They echoed the last sentence, an unholy harmony, "We don't bleed," and then again, all together, "We don't bleed."
Oddom turned, paying no attention to Kol's crossbow levelled at her chest.
"Can I wrestle one of them?"