The Merchant of Bones
The dark is his domain. Death is his trade.
The Backbreaker. The Chain Keeper. The Merchant of Bones. I’m known by many names down here in the darkness. The winding caverns of my lair bored into rock not by machine, or even beast, but the grime-encrusted hands of men clasping splintering wooden picks. These mines run deep. Squalid, narrow and damp, their craggy walls glisten with a sweat that permeates the air like a thick mist. It doesn’t matter that no sun nor heat ever worms its way into this forbidding place, illuminated only by flickering firelight of torches clamped to the bare rock by rusting iron brackets; the graft is so hard no worker fails to leave without a sodden sheen across their filth-ridden brow. Not if I can help it, at least.
To them, I’m like a fable. A ghost story taken true form. A demon or a bad omen haunting their days. To those above ground though, I’m known by a different name: the foreman. The work is tough, and my masters demanding. But I find I’m delivering more of what they need every day, and I’m praised for it, so I push my drones harder, and become more beast than man in their eyes. The harder I push, the more I become a dread to the workers, but the more they dread me, the happier my masters are.
The dread also serves more purpose. The dread is needed. Without their fear of me, the mines would never deliver all of what my masters desire. Without the Merchant of Bones, our entire world could fall apart. Then where would we be? There is nothing in this bitter, ice-encrusted corner of the world but the work of the mines. No fjords to fish, no fields to till, no timber to chop. I am the whetstone that grinds at the axe that is my home; without me, it would grow dull and lifeless. Without me working these dogs until their hands shook and the jagged floor of the mines ran with their dribbling vomit, the masters would leave, and the world would stop turning.
Emerging from the mines, after the sun has already fallen, bright moonlight clutches the chill air, rebounding off a great and familiar cliff face that looms behind me, gently bathing the world below in a soft blue light.
I take in a breath so crisp and clean I cough it straight back out again. I stay beneath the stony surface of my mine so long that when I leave it, I feel as if the space that has opened up around me is a maw threatening to swallow me whole. This open world always seems alien to me, despite the fact I walk the same path every night and every morning. I might be first into the mine and last out, but it is not my home, a place I am eager to get back to now. A small house on the edge of town; far from people, far the from noise, tight and narrow and quiet, my home is just how I like it. I rush my way up the crest that lays between mining pit and the cityscape, desperate for the clutching embrace of walls. The ground beneath my feet is a frozen slurry of snow met with churned up mud from the days work in the yard.
Tomorrow is going to be different sort of day. Tomorrow I will find myself wandering the stone-flagged streets of the city that I swiftly press my way towards, but this time while the sun still hangs in the sky. I’ve been summoned. Called up by my masters to attend a public gathering that will discuss what they label ‘a growing concern’ amongst the community about the rigorous nature of our mining. As a rarity, I am the one who experiences that sense dread usually preserved for my workers. Much of the city is tightly packed in, like my mine shafts, which I can find some comfort in, but I’ll be forced to stand in the open courtyard of the town square. My prayers of the past few days have been that I am not required to stand there for long. I tell myself they shouldn’t keep me, my work is too important to be standing around serving their beleaguered politics. At least I am not needed to speak, which is good for I have no mind for speaking; I communicate better with a chain in hand. I leave words to smaller men.
Even as the sun bears down from its place in the cloudless sky, the sheets of snow blanketing the roofs of the tightly-packed greystone houses does not melt. The snow never melts here, and the frost on my breath so heavy it sinks shows exactly why. Even bound up in thick furs, like all the gaunt and dreary pale faces I pass, I feel the cold biting at me. The layers make every man and woman look wide and spry, but beneath them, there is little meat on anyone's bones; so scarce and coveted is food here. Well, my bones are covered in more than most. I am the foreman after all. And if I didn’t have my muscles to lift my chain, the workers would wain, the masters would lose interest, the money wouldn’t flow, and there would be even less food for the hungry. Every eye that falls upon me is sharp and glaring. I feel the hatred rise off them like the smoke billowing from every chimney across the tangled mess of houses that make up this meandering city. Hatred, and hunger for the food they know I’m treated to above them. But they shouldn’t hate me. Without me, they’d all be buried under the snow. Many already were, of course, because of me. More, I mean. More would be buried.
The time spent outside my precious abode was, as I came to suspect, irrelevant and unfulfilling. The masters merely dragged me out to stand by idly as they tried to placate the growing discontent of this ungrateful town. Maybe they thought an intimidating face would mar the angry voices, or maybe they thought it would quell some of the rumours to see a man, not a beast nor vicious monster as I’d probably been described, standing before them. A folly on their behalf. My presence did little to stem the torrents of rage. Thankfully, the whips of the city guard faired better. A preferable choice, in my opinion. Although my iron chains would have made for even more convincing arguments, had they let me bring them. After the mob was brought to heel, the masters made their point, whether it was pleasing to the masses or not.
If they wanted coin coming into their desolate little city, in the far reaches of the world between nowhere and fuck-knows-where, they needed to let the mines run, and run deeper and deeper. There was no alternative. To close the mines would mean abandonment from the world beyond our reaches, along with the masters that brought us the only chance of survival. Where else would the people go if the money left? Closure, or even just a slowing of output, would be all but certain death for every man, woman and child here. The brutality required for such a task, and a capitulation to it, was favourable to that, surely? The voices of the crowd took umbrage with this notion, saying they were all dying anyway, so why suffer so badly in the process. They argued, in their pitiful ignorance, that there must be another way. That’s when my name came to bare, and I was forced from the shadows. I knew the best way, it was said. My rule should be followed.
I don't understand why the masters bothered. I don’t understand why they put stock in the weak and filthy rabble, nor took any credence in their opinions, but still, they tried to make peace. Some hope is better than no hope, was their stance. I had to stifle a laugh when softer voices called for mercy; called for aid from the cities and towns out over the wastes. They said we could find help. The idiots might as well have asked for life to be brought back to a dead hog, such was the futility of what they pleaded for. I left when I was bid to, and not a moment later. Streaking through the town, I ripped through my front door, grasped my chain and slank back down towards the pit. Back to where I belong.
The yard seems quieter than normal. Only a few karts are hauled up the hill, packed with stone and into the city. Often long lines of men stood atop the cleft of the mound, gripping tightly to rope and heaving their mud-locked wheels up the slippery slope. Today it was just a smattering of hands. My underlings must have pulled more workers into the mine to fill the day’s quota, with me not there to oversee progress. The hand wrapped around my chain grows tighter as I take harried steps towards the entrance to the mines.
It’s dark down here. Darker than usual. Or perhaps that is just my morning spent in the dazzling brightness of the sun. Wait. No, it’s definitely darker. There are only a few of brackets burning with lit flames, shrouding most of the tunnel in shadow. Normally, the entire cavern would be bathed in flickering light. It is silent, save for a slow, far off drip. But as I enter one of the longest stretches of darkness, I hear it. A quick shuffling of feet, then hands on my shoulders. Finally, there is a sharp, splitting pain across the back of my head.
Whether they meant to or not, they hadn’t killed me. I can feel my own chains wrapped around my wrists, but only barely, the rest of my attention is forced to my pulsating head. It doesn’t so much as hurt as feel heavy. A great sickness hits me like a wave, passing through quickly before another takes its place. I let my head loll forward, but pull it back sharply as the true pain hits. The movement brings forth another burst of sickness. I decide to keep myself steady. A quick and violently excruciating lesson learned. Neither the pulsing nor sickness pass, but my stillness does give my eyes a chance to flicker around the spinning chamber. A space cut into the mine where tools are normally kept, it is now laid bare, two torches hung either side of the pitch-black archway that lays a few strides ahead of me, crackling softly in the otherwise deftly silence. There are no sounds of pickaxes on stone. No sounds of workers trundling karts up or down the shaft, or miners screaming as more work is goaded from them. The silence fills me with fear. I might be restrained, tied to a wooden chair by my own chains and plumped down ready for some form of integration, but nothing churns my stomach more than the thought of the master’s wrath if the mines fail to deliver. Or perhaps, the churning of my stomach comes from the pulsing growing heavier upon the back of my skull.
They enter now, three of them, ducking low through the archway. At least, I think it’s three. My blurred and swirling vision could be playing tricks on me, but I’m fairly certain it’s three. Their frames are all narrow, clad in ragged clothing and skin thick with dirt stains so engrained no amount of scrubbing is cleaning them off. Each brandishes some kind of weapon, dull metal reflecting the dancing flames, although my eyes can’t focus enough to see exactly what they are.
“The Merchant of Bones.” One addresses me in a sneering tone. “Brought to heel.”
“A pig of the mines, bringing itself to slaughter.” I spit back. Suddenly gathering the taste of blood in my mouth, I feel splits in my apparently swollen lips. The realisation brings an awareness of pain to my face, and to the bruising from an unconscious beating I probably received. I now notice my vision might also be strained from my right eyelid that swells heavily. I wonder what else I could be missing. Is my leg broken, perhaps? There are too many agonies to focus on, the sound of the scum’s voice before me the worst of all, as he speaks again.
“We’re here to bargain, not die.”
I laugh. It’s not fake. I throw my head back with merriment but the swell of pain and nausea hits me far too quickly, and far too hard. I lurch forward to vomit on their feet. They in turn recoil, stepping away quickly with gasps of repulsion. Sputtering and coughing out the remnants of bile that swill around my mouth, I find myself grinning a self-satisfied grin.
“Apologies.” I croak, mockingly, unable to find a clear voice through the burning in my throat and the aching in my head.
“Look, Chain Keeper.” Another says, stepping forward. In my hazed vision, set to the floor, I see his boots tread in the pool of sick laid across it. He squats down on his haunches in front of me, trying to get my attention.
As my head swims, I avoid his gaze. I see his hands twitch. I know he wants to grab at my face, to pull my focus to his eyes, but he daren’t touch me. Not for fear, but disgust at the dribbles of vomit I can feel on the chin. “We’re not here for death. We’ve had enough of that.” He goes on as I let out another, less emphatic, laugh. “We want things to change down here, for the better. And you can make that happen.”
“How?” I grin up at him, finally meeting his eyes, or at least, trying to. Mine can’t seem to hold a focal point, but as they fade in and out in the flickering light of the dingy chamber, I notice his are fixed.
“We need machines in the mines. We need better tools and more food. If you stop the beatings we can work harder. If you make it easier for us, we can bring up more stone.” The man speaks with an authority, with a strength I thought I’d crushed down here in my domain. I’d have to work harder at that once I was free of these chains. “It isn’t the work that kills us, it’s you.”
“Okay, done. Now let me go.” I say with more mocking tone to my voice. We both know well enough it doesn’t end so simply. He sighs at my humour; or maybe he has realised his own ignorance too late.
“You don’t go free. Not yet.”
“No?” I choke indignantly. “Then when?”
“We here.” He gestures around the room. “We four come to an agreement. We take you before the townsfolk with that agreement. They rally to us. We all go to the masters. The masters have no choice but to meet our more than reasonable demands. Then the miners go back to work all peaceful like.”
“So simple.” I chide. “I have to wonder why you didn’t just corral the mob in the in the square today?”
“You are leverage.” Spoke up another of the men behind him. Was it the one who spoke first, was it the other? I couldn’t tell and I didn’t care to try and figure it out. I just nodded with them. It is a gentle nod, but it hurts less than I thought it might. I let it become a little bit of a fiercer nod. Testing my limits…
I rustle at my chains. The man looks around my back but doesn’t move from his squat. He doesn’t fear my escape, it would seem.
“Your plan,” I say with a considering tone. “Is not actually too bad.”
I shift my head to one side in an agreeable gesture. I find the sickness stays at bay.
“But…” I continue, pausing just long enough to really draw in their attention and, more importantly, give me time to steady myself. “You’ve made a mistake.”
“Explain it to me.” The man before me says calmly. He really isn’t afraid. He really thinks the upper hand is his. This is why they don’t put the dregs of the mines in charge of anything actually important. This is why they give them to me to do with whatever I see fit.
“What you say is true. If we cut the beatings. If we improved lives of the miners. Yes, we probably could harvest more stone than we do now.” I admit. “But the masters have no need for all that fucking useless rock.”
I quickly slip my hands together and loosen the subtly built-in catch on the central link of my chain, splitting them in two. Now separate swinging weapons, they remain bound to my wrists as I leap to my feet. I knock the man ahead of me onto his back with a crack; a crack not as loud as those of the skulls, though. I raise my arms and slam the iron chains down heavy on each of his co-conspirators. They strike true, blood gushing from grotesque head wounds as both men fall. One to his knees, gasping slightly as he slumps, the other straight down like a sack of coal.
It is now that it hits me: the pain and terrible sickness. I stumble forward, reaching for the wall to steady myself, my roiling head flashing streaks of light before my eyes, then patches of darkness where the light had once been. I fight back the urge to vomit, for a moment, before the retches come in waves and what is left of my stomach contents spills out over the harsh cavern floor. I feel a faintness almost take me, but my resolve keeps me upright as I notice the still living man in the corner of my eye, scrabbling to his feet. I try to wheel around on him, the chains dangling at my side, but instead I just collapse against the jagged stone wall and painfully slide to the ground, bumping on pointed edges as I go. I hit the ground with a heavy thud, which shoots pain up my back and strikes at my head. I gasp and cry out, unable to hold in the noise.
He’s on top of me now, gripping at my cheeks. He isn’t afraid of the vomit anymore. I know his hands are there, because they shake my head to keep me conscious, and I see them in faded outlines of my vision, but I can’t feel them. I can’t feel anything but burning coursing through my entire body, prickling at my skin.
“What do you mean, useless rock?” He demands, and I can’t help but let out another laugh in spite of myself; in spite of everything. I play through the idea of not saying anything at all, but then a thought comes to me: A thought of the insolence and disrespect I’ve received for so long. The hate. The looks of disgust. They despise me, these people. They despise me and all I’ve ever done is keep this fucking hovel of a town alive. Now, on my way out, with no burden of loyalty or lives to care for, why not take the whole place with me? Why not let this desolate little corner of the world burn to the ground? The simple truth would do that.
“What did you mean?” He roars, shaking me evermore violently.
“The stone...” I say, hoping he’ll relax his grip at my words, at least long enough for me to enjoy a final slump against the floor. He does and I wither like a flower, sliding to the ground and curling my body around the arched walls of the rocky chamber. “The stone means nothing to the masters.”
“Then why do we work down here?” He shouts. “Why do we die for it?”
“Because that is what they want. They want death.”
My vision is patchy and my ears ring. The man says nothing for a long time. Have I gone deaf? No.
“What?” He says eventually, voice riddled with confusion.
“The masters want bodies, not stones. The mining work is a front. A lie to satiate the crowds. To kill with impunity without people knowing they are actually being killed and not just dying instead. It is to give reason to what is, basically, murder. We don’t trade in stone, we trade in livestock. You and your filthy lot are the livestock.”
He says nothing, so I carry on. I can only imagine the look on his face, because I can’t see it.
“They do work on the dead. Experiments. I don’t know what, but they need fresh bodies all the time. We drive the men brutally in the mines, pushing them to breaking point, to an early grave, under the claim the stone is needed for money to come in, but really the money comes in for the bodies we bring up.”
“Why not just kill us all now and get it over with?” He asks with a helpless tone.
“Because then the well would run dry. The mines mean a slow and steady supply. Well…” I laugh again. I haven’t laughed this much in a very, very long time. “It was slow at first, but their needs have grown, as you’ve come to notice.”
“And that is it? That is why you torture us down here? Why so many die so needlessly? That is why you’ve become the Merchant of Bones? Because that really is who you are? A trader in death.”
I go to nod but I can’t actually move my head anymore. I just let a low grumble of agreement instead.
I feel a warmth against my forehead. I open my eyes to see something red slowly oozing out around me. My head wound must have reopened and was now draining itself across the ground. No wonder I feel so faint even her on the floor. I close my eyes, then open them again. I can no longer see the blood. There is little to my vision now but blinding white lights, despite the darkness of the cave I know I’m still in. Even when I close them, the light remains, consuming all the spaces of my head.
“How do we stop this?”
My laughter comes again. This time in short, ragged bursts. I’m struggling to take in air, but a sickeningly joyous emotion overtakes me and I can’t help but rasp in breath between my fits of laughter. What a fool. What a misguided, ignorant fool. His words sound like a prayer to a god that will never answer. Pleading and desperate. I let my jaw hang slack and drag in a final breath.
“You join me.” I smile.
Looking for more stories? Explore the best new fantasy books of 2019!