Authors: Ron Miller
A COMPANY OF HEROES
A Company of Heroes
Book One: The Stonecutter
She is beautiful, lithe and swift: as deadly as the blade flashing in her deft grip. The blood of kings runs strong in her veins---but her weakling brother wears the crown. She is Bronwyn. And her name strikes fear in the hearts of the depraved courtiers feasting like jackals on the corpse of her father’s kingdom.
Her brother may rule the land, but a ruthless maniac is the puppet master behind the throne. And he has put a price on the head of the fugitive princess, who alone knows the secret to his power.
To save her kingdom, Bronwyn must enlist a rebel force of gypsies and giants, peasants and pirates, montebanks and changeling spies...
This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental.
Copyright © 2012 by Ron Miller
Cover art by: Ron Miller
The Encyclopædia Bronwyniana
Published under the auspices of Shahalzin Pordka XVI University
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form.
Electronic version by Baen Books
This book is for Judith,
with Judith knows what
and Judith knows why.
Queen Isabella the Fair (1295-1358),
otherwise known as the She-Wolf of France,
without whom this story would have been impossible.
If it had not been for the strong arm of Thud Mollockle, the Princess Bronwyn would today be languishing in some unknown and mossy dungeon, had she been allowed to remain alive at all.
Thud is a sarcophagus-maker for a stone cutting firm in the Transmoltus district of Blavek. He works without assistance in a large, low-ceilinged ground-floor room. Directly above him are the studios of the more skilled stone carvers, who work on Church and private commissions. They provide more than a third of the city’s architectural decorations: caryatids, capitals, friezes, pediments, cherubim and seraphim, urns, bas-reliefs and portrait busts, among many other standard and commissioned items. Dust, fine, white and talc-like, filters through the wide spaces between the boards that form the stone carvers’ floor and Thud’s ceiling. When the afternoon or morning sun beams in through either the southeast or southwest windows, this ever-present lithic miasma becomes illuminated in a milky glow that makes it almost impossible to see one end of the shop from the other. Thud is probably doomed to a lingering death from silicosis since he had begun working at the shop at the age of six and is now thirty-two. Still, he just as certainly would have thought it unnatural to breathe an atmosphere composed of anything other than ten percent oxygen, fifty percent nitrogen and forty percent marble.
All day long, Thud hears above his head the ceaseless, fussy
, tink, tink, tink
of sharp steel chisels.
Thud’s workroom is occupied by Thud and perhaps a dozen rectangular blocks of stone the color of oxidized potatoes. These average about four feet thick, about the same in width, and five or six feet in length. It is Thud’s job to hollow them out. When finished, each solid mass of stone will have been transformed into something resembling a deep, uncomfortable-looking bathtub. These are sent upstairs to the stone carving departments where it becomes the job of junior stone carvers to decorate the four sides of the sarcophagi with appropriately funereal decorations. Meanwhile, the great slabs of the lids are being prepared elsewhere, a small subdepartment of the firm being devoted to just this one product for which there is a known and steady demand. Eventually some merchant or politician will have his mortal remains sealed within one of these stone cocoons, where it will safely molder away, decomposing decently out of sight and memory. What becomes of his vast stone basins is a question that very seldom troubles Thud, whose skull resembles his raw material to a striking degree; in density, at least, if not in form.
The stone working firm of Groontocker and Peen is never, during working hours, a particularly quiet place. An ancient frame building that fills an entire irregularly shaped city block, it is divided into five floors or, rather, for the most part, vast open lofts. More than one hundred and twenty artisans work in them, and not one of them work at anything that does not make noise. Mallets strike chisels, chisels strike stone, stone strikes floor, rasps abrade marble and granite winches and pulleys screech under their massive loads, drills bore holes into resisting stone with a sound that makes teeth whimper in empathy. To all of this the old building vibrates sympathetically like the sounding-box of a guitar; all day long it hums and throbs and groans. Nevertheless, as the Transmoltus is a district of industry, Groontocker and Peen is a comparative island of serenity; try as it might, its contribution to the general din is almost negligible. The building of the stone working firm is crowded by its neighbors, vast and ancient piles of frame or brick or stone all stained alike by the oleaginous soot that makes the atmosphere of the Transmoltus unique.
Only lightless cobbled paths snake between the crowded buildings. These are filled with a chaos of carts and vans; trolleys and trucks; people with baskets, boxes and bundles. The sound has nowhere to go: the squealing of axles, the rumble of iron tires on stone, and the shouting of peddlers, merchants and angry drivers who should know better than to be in a hurry in the Transmoltus in the first place. From the surrounding buildings come unearthly noises; few of them identifiable except by the very knowledgeable or excessively imaginative, but all of them unpleasant. High, sustained shrieks that make one’s head feel as though it is being threaded on an endless steel wire; bass moans that make the lower intestine shudder weirdly; and resonating bongs that sound as though boilers are being dropped a full story onto hard ground, which, in this instance, is just what is happening. Directly opposite the one large open window in Thud’s workshop that faces the main thoroughfare are the open windows of a vitally active, mechanized factory: the belts that run the great heckling machines within scream and buzz and occasionally crack like whips. Thud has no idea what heckling machines actually make, other than noise. In fact, Thud does not even know that there
such things as heckling machines. However, all of this unholy, brain-numbing, bone-rattling din is only a background murmur to anyone who has grown up amid it. Therefore Thud is no more consciously aware of the stormy sea of vibration that washes over him, like a tsunami over an innocent tropical islet, than any one of us might be of the ticking of a clock, the song of the cricket or bird, or the beating of our own hearts.
Which all goes to show why it is not surprising that in spite of such a superfluity of noise Thud hears the princess.
Or, rather, he hears the armed men who are close behind her. Shouting and a single pistol shot draw Thud away from his work and to the open window. Just as he thrusts his head into the full sonic fury of the heckling machines, he sees a girl turn the corner and pause just below him. She looks like one of the rats Thud occasionally corners in his shop: completely out of wind, head twitching side to side, looking for an escape that doesn’t exist. The girl is cornered just as effectively as one of the rats, too. On her right is the vast, unbroken wall of Groontocker and Peen; ahead she is faced by the equally unbroken wall of the factory that housed the mysterious heckling machines. Unbroken at least so far as the girl’s immediate needs require, since the only windows are far above her head. To her left is the entrance to the alleyway from which she had just appeared. The streets in both directions are plugged by a nearly impassable log jam of human bodies and vehicles. Once caught in that writhing mass she would be ground to dust, like a stone in a lapidary’s tumbler. Thud would have been hard put to explain his next action, as he would have been hard put to explain anything he did. Thud is a creature of action, if absolutely necessary, not one of introspection, which is never necessary. He certainly isn’t moved by the girl’s appearance, since all he can see of her is the top of her head. Perhaps the ovoid mat of hair reminds him of a little animal. He always feels sorry whenever he traps one of the rats that infest his shop: he hates the way it looks at him just before he hits it with his mallet. He is always tempted to let the rat go, though he doesn’t dare or it would bite his ankles and steal his already meager lunch. He feels much the same way about the creature he sees beneath his window, and here is a chance to make amends to hundreds of mashed rats.
“Hey! Girl!” he shouts down at her.
She looks up with a twitch like a startled cat and sees dangling before her a knotted, brown, ropy, hairy, scarred thing: something like a tree root and something like a big sausage: Thud’s arm.
“Come on, grab hold!”
The girl, without a moment’s hesitation, does as she is asked and is whisked into the window as though she had been a handkerchief Thud had been waving at some departing friend, if he had had any friends, that is.
Thud now sees what lay below the thatch of hair he had been staring down upon only a moment before. It is indeed a girl, as he had suspected. Immediately below the hair, which is straight, shoulder length and colored a dark auburn, like oiled mahogany, is a face lean from fright and exhaustion. Large, wide-spaced, bottle-green eyes, almost imperceptibly slanted, are dilated from fright and the sudden darkness. They are framed by rather thick, peaked eyebrows, much darker than her hair, each as elegant and eloquent as a Chinaman’s brush stroke. Her face, initially red from exertion, is now taking on an equally unnatural parchment-like tint. It is angular, with very prominent cheekbones slanting toward the corners of her wide mouth. The face looks to Thud like one of the cold alabaster busts from the third floor. Her nose is long, rather thin and more convex than straight. A raptor’s nose. She looks older than she is, though there is no way then Thud could have known that. In fact, she
young: seventeen or perhaps eighteen. Although she is far above average in height, Thud would never have described her as tall; from his mountainous viewpoint,
is short. Her legs are coltish, comprising more than half of her not inconsiderable altitude. She is slim-hipped, small-breasted and rather snakily lithe-looking. She clutches a battered leather satchel to her chest, held in place there by a stout strap that crosses her breast diagonally. She is wearing a long-sleeved, ankle-length dress of a fine cloth that, though torn and bedraggled, still looks more elegant than anything Thud has ever seen.
What had suddenly appeared before the girl she does not recognize immediately as something human, and she was probably more than half-right in that. Something more like a bull, perhaps; it
very bull-like, though it has something bear-like about it, too. As well as ox-like, or even like a walrus a bit, but a lot more like a gorilla. With a sudden inspiration, she thinks of an enormous loaf of bread with clothes on. She imagines such a loaf over seven feet high, with four additional loaves for arms and legs; she thinks that, in color, texture, shape and general overall impression, the simile is fairly accurate. A muffin is balanced somewhere near the top: a currant muffin, since a pair of black dots are staring at her. The baked-goods-man image is so perfect she almost can’t believe it when the muffin speaks to her. “Somebody chasing you?” it asks, and the girl can only nod. “Somebody real bad? You scared?”
She nods again and jumps away from the window with a gasp, as the voices of her pursuers reached her. They are rough, supercilious voices and they are commanding the street people to tell them where the girl had gone. But in the few seconds that have passed, the people
in the alleyways have been completely replaced: they aren’t the same ones who had been there when a girl was lifted through the window by an arm like a tree root ‘or loaf of braided bread).
“They’re coming!” she cries, and there follows the sounds of crashing doors, stamping feet and muffled shouts of command and protest, vindicating the accuracy of her observation.
“All right, then,” Thud says, pointing to a spot on the floor. “Curl up there, like a ball.”
?” says the girl curtly, not understanding and, even in the throes of a precarious situation, finding herself bristling at being given such a peremptory order. She is not used to being commanded.
“Hurry! Sit down there and curl up like a ball.”
Puzzled, the girl sits on the snowy floor and hugs her knees. She does as she is told in spite of her lack of practice and inclination for following directions, though she could not have understood why. Since the big man is not shouting “Here she is!” or trying to arrest her, which latter he can have done with one hand, he can’t be up to anything much worse, she decides. She watches with amazement as the huge creature picks up one of the massive sarcophagi, seemingly without effort, and lumbers over to where she sits. “Be real quiet, now!” he orders, and before she can so much as offer a surprised syllable, upturns the stone coffin over her.
The girl is plunged into profound darkness before she even realizes what the big man’s intention is. She feels trapped, as one of Thud’s doomed rats might feel if a bowl were to be dropped over it. Panic rears up in her, its waxen, sweaty face urging her to become hysterical. Only a second ago, she had been out in the bright, noisy street, running for her life. Now she is caught in a trap as dark and silent as a nightmare. The transition is bewildering and disorienting.
Had she been offered the two as options, she would have considered them fairly well-matched choices. What if the monster leaves me here? She could never lift the block of stone on her own and there must only be a few minutes’ worth of air within its cavity.
What if he forgets about me? He hadn’t looked very bright at all. What if they arrest him, and take him away before he can tell them where I am? What if they shoot him, and he dies with my hiding place bubbling on his bloody lips? How many months or years would it be before someone decides to move the big block of marble, discovering to their horror and mystification my decomposed or even mummified body?
She visualizes herself transformed into a kind of monkey-like caricature sculpted in jerky.
Perhaps, she thinks, it
be a fate better than the one that awaits me otherwise.
Her head is pressed against the bottom of the sarcophagus, now her roof, which is barely wide enough for her broad shoulders. Her prison is roomy enough longitudinally, however, so that she can stretch out her legs, and she leans against the back wall. The stone is cool and moist and she gratefully presses her face against it. It smells cool and earthy, like fresh mushrooms. She rolls her head and when her ear comes into contact with the stone, she can hear voices. Simultaneously, she feels the floorboards vibrating with heavy footsteps.
The voices are muffled, but they are those of the Guards, for sure. She recognizes the imperious, condescending tones. They are demanding her.
The big man asks,
she thinks, immediately following this generosity with a less kind and considerably grimmer thought:
What if he really
forgotten I’m here? Maybe this isn’t an act!
There’s a girl hiding somewhere in this building
, the Guard replies.