CHAPTER ONE

The Tunnel


     BUMP …
     Humans were not meant to wage wars underground.
     And yet, Sleander didn’t notice Sir Jacien display the discomfort he observed in the others, many of whom still struggled with the close tunnel after all these months. They did not talk about it openly, fearing the repercussions of such honesty, but just the slightest of movements revealed a discernable tension. They would wipe their arms constantly to remove dust, or smack their ears to clear the hearing, and the way their eyes darted from one flickering shadow to the next hinted at hidden nervousness. Even their breathing heaved and gasped, as if the men believed the mere weight of the world above could suffocate them.
     Nevertheless, Sleander beheld the dirt-coated humans, so pale and distraught, with nothing but admiration and respect. Despite every objection to the environment and their considerable losses, they continued to fight alongside him and the members of his race. This was his home, not theirs, and the humans had willingly killed for, and died with, the Daferin in order to preserve and protect The Below from the invaders. Indeed, the humans had slowly changed the tide of the war to the Daferin’s advantage, not merely by ferocity and strength, but by adapting to unfamiliar and disquieting subterranean tactics.
     Even so, several physical weaknesses hampered the humans and raised doubts as to their reputed invulnerability. Their height gave them an aspect of dominance over the Daferin, but it also inhibited their ability to move deftly through tight spaces. Whether crawling or on foot, they had trouble keeping up, forcing the Daferin to spend extra time digging tunnels large enough for human forms to get through with any speed. If not for this one trait, if only humans could negotiate slightly tighter spaces, perhaps they would have lost fewer lives from the discovery of secret passages or the collapse of rushed, badly supported ceilings.
     BUMP …
     The tunnel around them shook. Falling pebbles crackled around him and a few of the soldiers jumped. Sleander blinked and fluttered his ear flaps to shed the debris, calling to mind another human weakness, and he glanced down the dim passage at the double-row of soldiers, fading out of sight in the sparse glow of torches. Light glinted off bared weapons and rare smiles, but it also caught the skittish headshakes used to keep their ears and eyes clean. Humans lacked any natural protection against the clogging soil, and despite the obvious benefits of a helmet or hood, the feeling of air on their faces oddly overwhelmed any desire for extra protection. Their susceptibility to mere dirt made them seem almost delicate, and the army lost soldiers frequently from its damaging effects. They would succumb to disease from inhaling too much smoke or dust or both, and Sleander knew at least two men who had gone deaf from aural infections. Quite often the humans wasted precious water to flush out their eyes and quickly, otherwise the required bandaging would take them out of commission for days. Even their hair, too thin and straight to provide much protection, ended up with embedded clumps that caused irritation, and while Sleander could see the funny shapes of shaved heads in the gloom, they were only slightly less noteworthy than those who slicked their hair back with a muddy mixture. Such grooming may have spared them the haircut, but it struck Sleander as unsanitary and somewhat silly—an observation he tactfully kept to himself.
     The Daferin possessed none of these shortcomings, and Sleander could not help but feel some superiority, just a touch, to the dominant race on the continent. These differences also kept the humans from being interested in obtaining Darkuun for themselves, much to Sleander’s relief. Rather, the humans only wanted to maintain their treaties and keep the Daferin as partners to labor in the mines and tunnels of their own countries.
     BUMP …
     The enemy in the war threatened that partnership.
     The Pentarets’ country shared the mountain range with Darkuun, but the race’s photosensitivity restricted them to life exclusively in The Below. They had tunneled into Darkuun’s territory, seeking room for expansion, and refused to recognize established borders. Negotiations had turned into arguments, arguments into fights, and inevitably the dying had begun.
     The early months had cost the Daferin thousands of lives, not from the Pentarets’ training or tactics, but from their magical skills. The Pentarets had long used Reticulative magic to explore extreme depths, depths that required more than mere cunning and manpower to reach. As soon as they declared war, they repurposed their magic and readied their Reticulators for attack.
     Fortunately, negotiations had remained in place long enough for the Daferin to send for aid from its closest allies. Help then came from countries such as Newelen and Ashencord … but none from the Reticulators’ country of Fairelin, which was not surprising, given their isolationist bent. The humans had brought what magic they could, and between that and the additional soldiery, the alliance slowly pushed the enemy back.
     Eight months of victories and losses had led both armies to a climax, and Darkuun’s hopes hung upon a battle long-planned. The strategy had brought Sleander to the tunnel with the others, to wait. And wait.
     BUMP …
     And he continued to wait as patiently as he could.
     Sleander didn’t bother to check his gear yet again. He could feel his sword pressing against him between his back and the wall, his weighted knotting rope hung by his side, and he had a short blow gun stowed in a pouch along with its darts. The Daferin army trained every soldier for standard mêlée, but the blow gun required the soldier’s tongue to be split in order to load, aim, and fire without using his hands. Sleander had agreed to the modification for the specialized weapon, and rumors circulated over his exceptional skill.
     When he thought of his gun, Sleander realized he was clicking his split tongue and tapping the toes of his boots on the floor as he sat there hugging his knees to his chest. Unaccustomed to wearing boots, Sleander preferred either bare feet or soft cloth for shoes, but both were impractical due to the acid their Reticulators employed against the enemy’s scorpions. The Pentarets controlled legions of the crawling creatures, and while their stings were more potent against the Daferin, even the larger humans could be overwhelmed by a massive attack. Their use particularly unnerved the humans, and of all the deaths that a soldier could experience in The Below, they usually singled out the smothering pain of a scorpion attack as the worst. The true veterans of battles, however, never spoke of ways to die, only of ways to avoid it.
     Sir Jacien sat across the tunnel and to Sleander’s right. He did not return Sleander’s stare and instead squinted against the dim light at a vellum map. Daferin maps were difficult to read, for they had to depict three dimensions on the paper’s two-dimensional surface, and Daferin tunnels never followed a discernable pattern—especially not tunnels that had to avoid detection by the enemy. With practice, most of the human commanders had mastered the skill, and Sleander had been impressed with how quickly Jacien had learned it under his tutelage. Over the months he had come to understand why Jacien commanded Newelen’s army, even though he seemed young for his race. Unlike the other human commanders, there were no creases in Jacien’s face to collect dirt and, before he had shaved himself bald, the dark red of his hair had displayed no frost.
     BUMP …
     A muted yelp echoed down the tunnel a ways, followed by an outburst of cautious laughter. And silence again. Jacien lowered his map and began folding it as he exchanged words with his human friend, Alstrom, in their own country’s language. Sleander knew that the two of them had served together for years and came from the same city in Newelen, a prosperous keep near the ocean with a name he kept forgetting, something like East-El or East Dell. They seemed fond of it, but that endless expanse of blue water sounded frightening to Sleander. Jacien had spoken of it during a rare conversation unrelated to battles or supplies or the number of dead, and, while the human recounted the scenery with a passion he normally lacked, Sleander felt no urge ever to see such a place. Choosing between The Above or The Below was like the choice between sleeping on a hard, cold rock or a mossy, blanketed bed. Just the thought of “outside” caused him as much discomfort as the humans felt in the tunnels, and although Sleander had ventured out of Darkuun, the trips had been made out of duty rather than desire … and he’d never gone to the ocean. From what he’d seen, he didn’t like how the brightness of The Above caused his eyes pain, and the forest air lacked the comforting smell of earth and fire. And the wind, the noisy wind, it blew away any pretense of a ceiling overhead and left him naked and open and exposed to the emptiness …
     BUMP …
     “I miss the wind,” Sir Jacien said to Alstrom as he folded up his map. “A little fresh air would make these tunnels more bearable.”
     Commander Alstrom, the soldier sitting directly across from him, gave him a grin. Alstrom was Jacien’s age and geared similarly in thickly padded leathers and tall boots. He had a sword strapped to his back and, like the rest of the soldiers, carried a strangely angled spiked club.
     “I don’t know, you seem used to it,” he replied.
     “Do I?” Jacien tucked the map into his leather vest. “I suppose I know that if we were aboveground we’d be in the snow, so this is preferable.”
     Alstrom shook his head. “I’d take Eadel’s winter to this. If we were aboveground we’d also have metal covering our hides instead of this leather, and I’d prefer that, too. Wouldn’t you?”
     Jacien shrugged, still squinting as he talked to protect his eyes from the grains that shook down with every movement and explosion, and they continued speaking about home. The two of them typically made idle banter just before a battle, particularly about the routines they missed. It reminded them why they fought in any war, since those tiny, significant memories often got overwhelmed by immediate concerns, not the least of which was staying alive. Soldiers crammed into the tunnel’s confines sat in pairs, backs against the wall facing each other, a few nervously checking their weapons. Those who understood the Newelen language listened to the verbal ritual, and it was comforting to hear their commanders treat this rather substantial battle just as any others. That was another reason Jacien and Alstrom always engaged in such talk, even though their thoughts secretly carried the weight of their respective responsibilities.
     Most of the men were his own soldiers, but Jacien had replenished his force with a handful from the other armies who had joined them in this war. Frandir, a Reticulator from Bahella, sat to Jacien’s left between him and the dead end. He had his bald head down and eyes closed, concentrating as he waited for the mental signal only he could receive. In his right hand he held a cloth embroidered with tiny patterns of different colors, looking merely like intricate blackwork to the untrained eye. The threads empowered the Reticulator with the ability to weave magic in The Below since the Rives, the usual sources of magical power, did not permeate this far below ground. The cloth’s weave stored some of the Rives’ power, and with each spell cast, part of the embroidery would fray and drop from the cloth. Even as he sat there, one of the threads was working its way loose to fall, used and useless, onto the stone floor. Jacien had only used Frandir during one other battle, but knew what he could do and had confidence in the man’s skills. His personal Reticulator, a middle-aged woman named Pelthya, had been killed two days prior, and even as he sat there speaking to Alstrom about an unrelated topic, Jacien quickly shut the distracting memory out of his mind. No time for that now, he thought; the last battle is never as important as the next …
     A tall woman named Kaeliana, a warrior from the country of Ashencord, faced the Reticulator and held deadly still while listening to the men. Jacien had barely spoken to her over the last eight months, but she had been present from the war’s beginning and had managed to stay alive, if not unscathed. Her leather armor showed patches where the enemies’ blades and bites had gotten through, and the damage would likely be more prevalent but for the coating of grime and soil ground into it. She could hardly be blamed for that; the scarcity of clean water in this environment made washing gear quite impossible. Instead of shaving her head, Kaeliana had opted to wear her sodden hair braided tightly back, and while it appeared dark brown in the gloom, the mud and the darkness hid its actual color.
     “I miss the opportunity to wash and be clean—” Jacien began, which seemed to spark the Cordan woman to life and she let out a rare laugh.
     “Something tells me I inspired that remark,” she joked in the thick accent of her country.
     “Forgive him, Kae,” Alstrom said before Jacien could reply. “Strategizing and swordplay leave him little time for manners.”
     The woman shook her head. “It’s all right, laughs have been few as of late.”
     Kae fell silent again almost immediately, making it clear he need not offer an actual apology. She had not given any impression of offense and had earnestly thought the statement humorous. For a moment her eyes had flashed golden in the torchlight, calling attention to their light brown shade, and her smile exposed a set of perfectly straight teeth …
     … but all too quickly her gaze reverted to the numb stare every human acquired after spending too much time in the belly of the mountains. Jacien knew that look well, along with the sickly pale appearance, the sunken cheekbones, and the lackluster skin; he had seen it in himself, vacantly reflecting from the mirror when he shaved, and during those moments alone he wondered whether that image would eventually change back or if he’d wear The Below forever as some sort of facial stain.
     Provided he lived, of course.
     Across and to the right of him, Sleander let go of his knees long enough to wipe his moist face, and then returned to the hugging position. His extra set of tear ducts often drained heavily in unfinished tunnels, and while that particular racial trait made him look as if he were constantly weeping, it effectively protected his eyes from damage. The Daferin’s facial features, with their large wet eyes, slim noses, and friendly smiles, gave them a gentle and kind appearance which belied their aggressive demeanor in battle. Their determination, combined with their thick skin and dense muscles, made it unwise to assume they would fall easily. During casual conversation at mealtimes, Newelen soldiers had tried to compare the Daferin to some type of animal, but Daferin resembled nothing so much as humans who’d adapted to digging and darkness. It had disturbed Jacien the first time he saw a Daferin shrug and fold his shoulders in front of him to squeeze through a tight passage, and he realized he wasn’t dealing with some group of cuddly pets, but with a society of unpredictable and talented warriors. Their gazes met and Jacien felt the need to say something.
     He cleared his dry throat and said, “Sleander, have you understood any of this?”
     Sleander gave the slightest of smiles and nodded. “Bits and pieces, Sir,” he replied in hesitant Newelen. “I am more used to Barter, but I will not learn your language if I do not listen. I pick up the words I understand and string them together, and sometimes they make sense.”
     The tone of Sleander’s voice sounded slightly high to Jacien’s ears, which resulted from the Daferin’s ability to use echolocation in the dark. The inhuman screeching in the blackness during previous battles had added an eerie atmosphere while saving lives and producing victories. Their language held traces of the sound, but they also spoke Barter, Westrivale’s dominant language which had been created by traders and merchants.
     “Just like Reticulation,” Alstrom said as he looked down at the Daferin next to him. “They gather scattered magic into their strings of thread, and sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Right, Frandir? Eh, he’s still concentrating.”
     “That’s not quite how it works,” Jacien said with a glance at the mage.
     “They’re weaving together something with their magic,” Alstrom insisted. “I wonder if I could have learned it if I tried. Perhaps I wouldn’t be crouched in a tunnel right now.”
     “It doesn’t seem to have helped Frandir.”
     “He’s an exception. Most Reticulators don’t even bother with the army.”
     “So why is he here?”
     “He’d likely tell us if he could hear us.” Alstrom looked at Kae. “Why are you here?”
     This time, Kae’s blank look came from his question rather than the surroundings.
     “Where else would I be?” she replied quite seriously.
     Alstrom chuckled. “The life of a Cordan, summed up in five words. Nothing but duty and fighting, not ever questioning either …”
     Kae rolled her head back to face forward. “Questioning does not change circumstance, Commander. You’re proof of that, else you’d not be here yourself. It only makes circumstance more difficult to reconcile with one’s conscience.”
     Jacien said to Alstrom, “Tell me you weren’t expecting that answer.”
     Alstrom said good-naturedly, “I miss having a discussion with a Cordan that does not end with philosophy or theology.”
     Kae responded, “Then don’t begin a discussion with ‘why.’”
     “All right,” Alstrom said, “then tell me what you miss about Ashencord.”
     Before she could answer, Frandir raised his head and opened his eyes.
     “They’re ready for us,” he announced and started to get to his feet. More threads fell from the cloth in his grasp. He handed it to Kae and said, “Tie this to my wrist. I’ll need both hands free for the next pattern.”
     Kae stood and did as instructed, and when Sir Jacien started to get up, his soldiers followed suit.
     “Remember,” Jacien called over his shoulder as he turned towards the dead end and hoisted his club, “out of the opening as fast as you can.”
     A chorus of “Yes Sirs” sounded behind him and the line of soldiers waited for the Reticulator to finish. Frandir began to whisper and wave his hands in front of the tunnel’s dead end, weaving a pattern in the air so fast that the onlookers could not follow it. Out of the corner of his eye, Jacien saw Sleander pull on his fighting hood, and heard his high-pitched voice mingling with the deeper tones of the soldiers behind him, exchanging a war slogan that had stemmed from the uneven ground and the nature of the enemy. Jacien looked at Alstrom beside him.
     “Don’t fall,” he said to his friend.
     Alstrom nodded and gave the standard response.
     “Make them fall.”
     Frandir’s chant had quickly gone from a whisper to a raised voice, and his arm motions had become even faster. Kaeliana had to step back a little to make room and nearly bumped into Alstrom. She turned and glanced at him to check her distance, and gave him a grim smile.
     “You want to know what I miss, Commander?” she called out.
     Frandir’s movements were getting almost frantic and his chant continued to swell until it couldn’t get any louder, as if he had reached the apex of a crescendo.
     “Tell me quickly,” Alstrom yelled with a nod.
     Kae faced the dead end and gripped her weapons tightly, bracing herself to run.
     “I wish I had my horse!” she shouted.
     The dead end exploded.



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Below is the first chapter of the upcoming novel, The Fields Where Soldiers Play, by B. J. Beck, now available at Amazon, from Brass Crab Books.  Amazon also has a portion of Chapter 2 for free viewing on its page. Enjoy!

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