Cal took a look at the books. He knew he couldn’t keep up with the expenses and the Sorian taxes. The slaves he was bringing in from the mainland wouldn’t be there for another three weeks and the tax collectors wouldn’t wait for him to sell them. He couldn’t sell the Ismarkings because of their expertise in mining. He looked out at the rough landscape and the coal mines. The slaves and their overseers where kept busy by their daily routines. Cal knew that he had to drive them harder to meet his quota and his tax expenses. He exhaled in frustration. He had come from the Sorian city of Syrenthal, so he knew of both the slave business and shipping, and he had learned the mining business in Barkoth, but the Ismark landscape had thrown him more challenges than he cared for. Rough winters and an unruly population had cost him almost his entire family fortune, but they were finally getting to the black coal the Empire needed for their warships. His brother was also breathing down his neck. He had never understood why Cal wanted to go for the mines in Ismark. A fool’s errand, he had called it. He looked at the slaves toiling outside. If only there were some way he could speed up the digging.
His office was filled with rapports and documents. Two barrels stood on one side of the wooden door. The office building was the only wooden building around the mines. He could see the dirt and stone houses where the slaves were housed. Those houses almost looked like the old Ismark houses with the grass growing on top of the huts.
Cal went outside. He was a slender man with brown hair and a few streaks of grey in it. He wore the traditional Sorian garb consisting of a long shirt over a pair of pants. They were made of wool from Ismark Jaks, since the climate was colder in Ismark than on the Sorian continent. His fingers were decorated with tattoos and gold rings. He had gotten the tattoos 40 years ago as an initiation into manhood. He looked at them. They snaked up his arms to his shoulders. Representations of the Sorian god were prominent and the faces of the different conquered peoples of both Ismark and the Sorian continent howled in pain. 150 years ago the last king of Ismark was killed by the great Sorian hero and emperor Sor. Sor was reborn every 100 years and led his people to victory. Whenever he died a new Sor was born and he would be raised as their leader and the son of their god. Cal wasn’t a religious man, but he respected the traditions of his people and would never break with traditions. The Sorians were the conquerors and the Ismarkings were the conquered slaves.
Cal looked at the impenetrable mountains where the coal mines lay, the Black mountains, or the mountains of death as they were known among the slaves. Few slaves ever left the mountains alive, especially if they came from the Sorian continent or any of the far of islands. Behind those mountains the last free Ismarkings held out against the Sorian army. Led by the notorious Jarl of Vindborg, the rebels had caused problems for the mining business. They seemed to appear from nowhere freeing slaves and raiding the Sorian encampments, stealing everything that wasn’t nailed down. He did not appreciate their struggle. They were a menace costing him more every time they attacked. Why couldn’t they see that their cause was lost? Their royal line was dead, so why not just surrender? The stubbornness of the Ismarkings was something the Sorians had not considered when invading. The war had lasted 200 years after their King was dead.
A young boy of 15 was running with a bucket of water towards the mines. He was tall and strong. Cal had seen him before. He had bought him of an Ismark chief who cooperated with the Sorians.
“You boy!” Cal yelled.
The boy turned around and looked at him. When he saw who had yelled, he hurried towards Cal. The boy had dark hair unlike the other Ismarkings, but his light blue eyes spelled out where he hailed from.
“You’re an Ismarking.”
“Yes, Master.” He answered with a meek voice. He bore marks from years in the mines.
“How do you feel about Sorians?”
“Master?” He looked confused.
Cal waved him off. “Never mind, boy. Continue your work.” The boy scurried off with his buckets. The water slushing back and forth as he moved.
Cal looked up at the large openings in the mountains. He owned three of the nearby mines, but he administered six others for one higher lord. He knew what would happen if the mines were not profitable. He shuddered at the sight of the gaping holes in the mountains. It reminded him of the drawings of Leviathans in Syrenthal, the sea monsters that swallowed whole ships. He had never seen one himself, but his uncle had survived an attack from a smaller Leviathan and he had never doubted the word of his uncle. He had started this business in Ismark. No one in his family had believed he could do it. Those mines. He had loved those mines. Now they were nothing but problems. He could hear his brother Lev now. “Why do you want to buy those holes in the ground? They will kill you.” He walked up to one of the entrances. Nihdar, one of his task masters, walked up to him.
“Master Cal, can I help you?” Nihdar was from the south of Sor. They had been slaves for over 1000 years and were the backbone of the Sorian Empire, both as workers and soldiers. Nihdar was very dark skinned and filled with scars. He had taken up the local custom of wearing a fur coat and wool trousers. Cal liked this man. He was aware of his place in the world.
“No, Nihdar, I’m just thinking about the delivery.” Nihdar looked at him. No expression ever revealed his feelings and that scared Cal. He never knew what the man ever thought, even though he had never doubted his loyalty.
“Do you want me to push them harder?”
“Maybe you should.” He knew he would lose a lot of slaves in the process, but he couldn’t disappoint the higher lords. He knew what happened to those who did. His hand felt his throat as a reflex. The thought of losing his head had hit him before, mostly after he started his business in Ismark. The troubles had started then. He should have stayed in Syrenthal.
“Master?” Nihdar observed him closely.
“I asked you if we should work through the night.”
“Of course you should.” Cal walked off caught his own thoughts. What would he do if he disappointed the higher lords? Could he escape their brand of justice? Doing that would surely break with tradition. Tradition was to face his judgment with bent neck so the henchman could get a clear chop. He didn’t like that tradition. The sensation of cold steel on his neck bothered him. Living without his head bothered him. Maybe he should make some quiet preparations?
His office seemed ominous in the evening’s failing light. The slaves mingled around the kitchen tent, but Nihdar was there and drove them back to the mines. Cal knew some of them would die within a week if he drove them as hard as he would, but he did not want to lose his head. He came closer to the building containing his office and quarters. The windows contained glass from Sor and was mainly built from timber from around the mines. They had cleared vast areas to make room for the camp, so timber was plentiful. Cal turned around. The camp was being lit up by torches. The fires everywhere seemed like the fires of the Sorian ships. He had seen the Sorian fleet once before, when they were anchored in Syrenthal as he was a young boy. He had told his father that he wanted to be a sailor in the fleet. His father had beaten him silly that night. “No son of mine will sink so low as a sailor,” he had said. Cal never talked of it again. Maybe it was not too late? Perhaps he could escape to the fleet and hide himself as a common sailor? He shoved that thought away. The higher lords would find him there.
He opened the door to his quarters next to his office. His houseboy, a young boy from Syrenthal, was there.
“Chett, pack some simple clothes in one of the cheaper cases.” The boy looked at him.
“Master, are you going somewhere?” Chett looked confused.
“Maybe. I’m keeping my options open.” Cal moved towards the door separating his office from his quarters. He went in his office. As he opened the door, some papers flew over a candle and they caught fire. Cal panicked and ran over to the papers. He stomped on the fire and it went out. He picked up the papers and looked at them. It was a letter from Lord Vix, one of the higher lords. The letter was well written, but the threatening undertone was clear. Finish his quota or pay the price. He went over to his desk and sat down. The sense of dread had not left him. He knew that he would never finish even though he pushed the slaves even harder than he did now. He looked at the letter again and then the candle. The letter moved closer to the candle. He smiled as the letter burned brightly. He knew now.