K. Parker: The Proof House

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K. Parker The Proof House
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    The Proof House
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K. J. Parker

The Proof House


It’s customary to die first; but in your case we’ll make an exception


Bardas Loredan was in the new spur when the main gallery caved in. He heard the squeal of straining timbers, a volley of cracks and snaps, a blunt thump that knocked him off his knees into the loose clay, and then nothing at all.

He lay still and listened. If the spur was going to cave in as well, it might not happen immediately. It all depended on whether the arch at the junction of the gallery and the spur had survived. If it hadn’t, the load of the spur roof would have nothing to support it except force of habit and the plank struts that lined the walls; it might come down all at once, or it might think about it, slowly and painfully calculating the stresses and forces like a backward schoolboy and finally coming to the conclusion that it had no right to be there. If that was how it was going to be, the first sign would be the harassed groaning of the timbers, a few handfuls of soil dropping down as the roof-boards bowed under the weight and opened up the cracks between them. It was, of course, academic; with the gallery blocked behind him and a solid wall of clay in front, he had nowhere to go in any event. Unless someone managed to dig through the obstruction in the gallery, reprop, cart out the spoil and find the mouth of the spur before the good air ran out, he was as good as buried.

It’s customary to die first; but in your case, we’ve made an exception.

For the first time in months he was aware of the darkness. After three years in the saps, the endless maze of tunnels dug by besiegers and besieged under the walls of the city of Ap’ Escatoy, he could go weeks at a time without seeing a light and not realise it; it was only in moments of cold terror like this that the instinctive need to see reasserted itself.

You want light? Tough. His hands were full of loose, crumbled clay; he could feel it against his cheek, cold and dead, and the texture disgusted him. Curious; three years in the mines and he could still feel that strongly about something. He could have sworn he’d grown out of that sort of thing.

Well; no going back. At a guess, he had enough air for the best part of a shift, something of a mixed blessing under the circumstances. Men who’d long since lost the capacity to fear anything else were still terrified of death by suffocation in the aftermath of a cave-in. No going back, and staying put was a mug’s game. The only option he could think of was to go forward, in the fatuous hope that the enemy sap they’d been trying to break through into was close enough that he’d be able to reach it (alone, single-handed) before the air ran out.

Put another way, the choice was: dig or stay put. After a moment’s thought, Loredan decided to dig. If nothing else, it’d help use the air up more quickly and get it all over and done with.

It hadn’t taken the Great King’s sappers long to realise that the seam of heavy clay that lay under Ap’ Escatoy was more than they could handle with ordinary tools and techniques. They’d broken their hearts and blunted their spades at the seam for three or so months when an old man had wandered across from the supply train and told them what they should be doing. He explained that before the war he’d been a clay-kicker, a specialist in cutting tunnels through clay-beds. He’d spent thirty years helping to dig the sewers of Ap’ Mese (sacked and razed to the ground in six days by the Great King’s army in the first year of the war) and what he didn’t know about making holes in the ground wasn’t worth spit.

To dig in clay, he told them, you need a stout, square wooden post, something like a farm gatepost, with a ledge dowelled to it about six inches from the base. You wedge this post (called a cross in the trade) diagonally-backwards between the roof and the floor of the tunnel, with the base a foot from the clay-face; then you perch your bum on the ledge, flatten your back against the post and use your feet and legs to kick the spade into the clay. Once the blade’s gone in, a sharp upwards jerk with the knees ought to free a spit of solid clay; you pull it out and dump it for the scavengers behind you to clear away with a long-shafted hook and carry to the spoil-dolly, a little flat cart on wheels with ropes and pulleys fore and aft that whisks the clay out into the main gallery, where it’s loaded on to the dog-carts that trundle up to the lift and back all day long. Behind the kickers and the scavengers come the chippies, the carpenters who cut and fit the boards that line the floor, walls and roof of the sap. Except for sawing the boards, every part of the job has to be done in pitch darkness, because even a closed lantern would be enough to set off the pockets of explosive trench-vapour that are all too common in the mines.

Bardas Loredan was too tall to be a good kicker. His knees were almost round his chin as he drew his legs back to punch against the crossbar of the spade. It was a job for short, squat men built like barrels, not long, lean ex-fencers. Unfortunately, if he didn’t do the job, nobody else would. He steadied the spade, lightly pressing the point of the broad leaf-shaped blade against the wall in front of him, and stamped hard, so that the impact jarred his bones from his ankles to his neck.

Of course, the kicker isn’t expected to work alone; the back-breaking chore of hauling out the chunks of compacted clay as the kicker boots them off the spade falls to the scavenger with his hook. But Loredan’s scavenger was somewhere back down the tunnel under a few hundred tons of cave-in and therefore excused duty, even in the Great King’s army; which meant that after every three or four spits he had to wriggle off the cross, drop forward on to his knees and scrabble the spoil away behind him with his feet, like a rabbit digging in a flower-bed.

Give it up, Bardas, give it away. Quit burrowing like a mole and suffocate with dignity. It was all pretty ludicrous, really. He was a leathery little chick desperately trying to peck his way out of a marble-shelled egg. He was the prince of tightwads, baron marshal of cheapskates (every man his own gravedigger; why waste money on exorbitant sextons’ fees when you can do it yourself?). He was the littlest ever worm in the biggest ever oak-apple. He was a dead man, still kicking.

Suddenly, the feel changed. Instead of the solid slice, a bit like a butcher’s cleaver in a stringy old carcass, it was hammering into resistance, as it might be the compacted clay of a tunnel wall. More of the jar and shock was coming back up his ankles and shins than before. It was different, and anything different was hopeful. He bent his knees till he felt them brush the corners of his mouth, and kicked. Something was about to give; something had given way rather than hold still and be cut. Not bothering to clear away he carried on kicking, obstructed by the prised-out spoil but too preoccupied to spare the time to do the job properly (that’s so like you, Bardas; be the death of you, one day) until a ferocious stomp of his heels drove the spade forward into nothing, and he was jolted forwards painfully on to the base of his spine.

Through, by the gods. I’ve found the damn sap. That’s handy. There was no light, needless to say, but the change in the smell of the air was extraordinary. Coriander; the tunnel he’d broken into reeked of coriander. Cautiously he wiggled his left foot into the breach he’d opened with the spade until he felt the flat of a board against the sole of his boot. He couldn’t help grinning; what if he kicked this board away, and it brought the roof down on him? Die like that, you’d wet yourself laughing.

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