Chapter 13: Waiting on the Storm
The constellations were blotted out by a thick blanket of dead clouds. Kwado could feel something tangible in the air, a palpable static building up around the quarry. A storm was coming. He shuddered, hoping it was just his frayed nerves on edge with the possibility of what they were about to discuss.
It had been nearly two weeks since their initial discussion about escaping. The three of them lay huddled together with a small bit of distance built between them and the other prisoners. Both Hobb and Boram had spent that afternoon faking a cold while they worked the mine. They sneezed, coughed, and moaned whenever anyone was within earshot, and word of their sickness quickly spread through the camp. Something as simple as a common cold was anathema, a death sentence in the Gulag, unless one of the guards found the mercy in their cold black hearts to send the prisoner to the healer. Hobb said that kind of thing rarely happened these days, as it was seen as a useless expenditure of resources.
So while they bedded down for the night, the rest of the prisoners gave as much room to their sick group as possible. Even the night watchman seemed to go out of his way to stay away from them. Which was exactly what Hobb wanted.
He scanned the area with jittery eyes and licked his lips. Kwado and Boram lay at opposite ends of a triangle, each watching past the other so that all directions were observed.
“Okay, this is how it’s going to go down,” Hobb said. “We have the power to disarm our wardens, but that will only get us so far. If we want to get out of this pit in one piece, then we need to stick to the plan. The rains are coming. That’s a good thing. The storm will provide us with some cover. Boram, you ready to share?”
The gargoyle nodded. His job was to keep a close eye on the night watch’s movements so that they could chart out a course through the sleeping grounds when the time came. “There are two sentries assigned to our block,” Boram said. “Each takes same route, more or less. They come by our sleeping spot once every twelve to fifteen minutes.”
“Which is it?” Hobb asked.
The gargoyle shot him a questioning look, an expression only evident in his stony yellow eyes.
“You said they take the same path, more or less. So which is it, more or less?”
Boram’s face remained emotionless. “Their deviations are insignificant. With the route they take past us, there are three easily accessible spots to hide undetected before we reach the back end of the slope.”
“Fair enough,” Hobb said. “From there we’ll have plenty of cover around the barrack tents. Spike here has discovered a plethora of hidey-holes for us.”
Kwado’s job had been to scout out places for them to hide among the barracks, a series of tents on the outskirts of the guard’s cabins that the newer recruits called home. Since he had been assigned the privilege of delivering barrels of ore to the blacksmith’s larder, he had the best opportunity to scout out that area.
“But how can we be sure there will be no guards out when we come on them?” Boram said.
Hobb scowled. “Use your eyes, demon. Even from here you can see the tents are quiet.”
The gargoyle grumbled, but it was clear as day that Hobb was correct.
“Do you really think Tinarius is going to risk life and limb to take these collars off of us?” Kwado said.
“He’s not,” Hobb said. “The goal of entering the blacksmith’s tent is not to enlist that ogre in our cause. We’ll need those shears you spotted the other day.”
Kwado’s mind went back to a week ago, when he had been delivering ore and spotted a poorly-cared-for set of shears in the back of the blacksmith’s tent. They immediately caught his eye because Tinarius was usually quite fanatical about keeping his tools in proper order, but these had been lying carelessly on the ground. Kwado had mentioned them to Hobb, lamenting that he did not have a pair to keep his talons trimmed.
“For my nails?” Kwado asked.
Hobb and Boram guffawed. “For the fence, Spike,” Hobb said. “The barbed wire is too risky for us. Boram could easily make it over, but not with his collar on. And he ain’t getting his bit of phalatite ‘til the two of us are also free and clear.”
Kwado wondered how the gargoyle would feel if he knew Hobb had already given the troll a piece of the phalatite. Soon after uncovering the geode he managed to ply three decent-sized crystals from the crumbling husk. Afterwards he left the geode in his hole and set up the tunnel to collapse in on itself. The Hammer was pretty upset about it, but in the end Hobb got through the ordeal with a minor beating. He insisted it was necessary—if the guards or another prisoner found the phalatite their whole plan would be ruined. Afterwards he slipped Kwado one of the pieces tied with twine as a shoddy necklace. In case we get split up, he had said with a wink. Neither of them trusted the gargoyle to honor his word, but they needed a third to make their escape plan successful.
“Ah, so we’re going to cut our way through the fence.” Kwado nodded. “It’s a good plan. But what if Tinarius catches us stealing the shears?”
Hobb shrugged. “Kill him. What? Don’t make that face. What choice do we have? If that ogre catches you, he’ll have the whole camp coming down on our heads before we can blink. He wakes up, you kill him. Simple as that.”
“He’s a prisoner here just like us,” Kwado said.
“Just like us?” Hobb scoffed. “What about him being up there in his palatial tent while we’re down here sucking mud forces a parallel comparison in that green head of yours, huh?”
“He doesn’t have a choice,” Kwado said.
Boram grumbled, rubbing the skin just beneath his collar. “Bastard put this on me…put one on every prisoner here. He didn’t have to do that. He could have done different, could’ve died instead of betraying his own. The ogre’s a coward. Had a choice, chose wrong. He moves, he dies.”
There was no changing the way these two thought. Kwado nodded. “Understood.”
“Now that’s settled, let’s review the plan one more time. We wait until the storm begins. After the night watchman passes, we make our move. Three spots to hide before the slope—we follow Boram’s lead. Once we’re at the slope, Spike takes over, shows us where we can hide if need be. I clear the way for us by the fence while the two of you slip inside the blacksmith’s tent and pilfer those shears. You meet me by the fence, we cut our way free, and slip out with none the wiser. Once we are out of range, I will pick the locks on our collars.”
“And if we’re spotted before that?” Boram asked. “What’s to stop a guard from using the Qilin on us?”
“I’ll be right there with you two for the bulk of the plan. Any trouble comes our way, I’ll use the stone to cancel out their wretched magic and we take ‘em downtown.”
Boram eyed him shrewdly.
“Look, man, I’m not in this to bend you over. There’s no ulterior motive here. We all want to get out of this pit just the same. The only way to do that is to stick together, understood?”
Boram grunted begrudgingly. “Aye.”
They both directed their attention to Kwado, cold eyes cutting the shadows. He gulped and nodded. “Understood.”
So it was decided. They were committed to their plan for escape. The winds shifted sharply, gathering up a cloud of dust from the quarry floor. Kwado lay on his back and directed his gaze to the overcast night sky. Now all they needed was a storm.
A week passed and still no storm. Despite a raging inferno of clouds and howling winds that promised to stir up a right hurricane, that rumbling belly of an enraged god had yet to produce so much as a single drop of rain.
The weather phenomena brought out all sorts of theories from the Gulag’s inhabitants, master and slave alike. Kwado overheard a pair of brooding pirates swearing the storm was a curse unleashed, no doubt by some hapless idjit prying in a witch’s larders. Later he happened by a hag cackling that it was the punishment of the gods, an ill-omen of dark times to come brought on by their unlawful keepers, who she claimed had violated the natural order of things in imprisoning the chosen. For their part, the guards grumbled that it was the warden’s way of forcing Percy, their bunkmate, to take a rinse.
Either way he chewed it, waiting for the storm to break was driving Kwado’s comrades mad. Each day that passed found Boram growing more and more withdrawn. Kwado did not like the way the gargoyle stared at Hobb when his friend was not looking. His stone eyes fast became tight and murderous, but whenever the human turned his way, they shifted into false smiles. Kwado thought surely he must be imagining it until one night he stirred from a dark dream to find the gargoyle wringing his hands and crouching over Hobb. Kwado sat up and glowered at the stone demon, slowly shaking his head. They exchanged hard looks for many heartbeats, and Kwado thought Boram was certain to attack him. But in the end the gargoyle grunted, turning over on his side and facing away from Kwado.
Kwado may have won that staring contest, but the gargoyle still scared him deep in his bones.
“The gods see fit to toy with my sanity,” Hobb grumbled the next morning as they began work. He brought his pickaxe down hard beside Kwado.
“You have to hold it together,” Kwado said, casually swinging his own axe and taking a sizeable chunk out of the rocky wall.
Hobb sneered and spit to the side. “For what? So we can rot in here waiting for some bloody rain?”
Kwado peered sideways. Hobb’s loud mouth was garnering more than a little unwanted attention from the other prisoners. “I think you better keep it down,” he said under his breath.
“Why should I?” Hobb scowled. “I’m tired of this ruddy routine, day in day out swinging this damned axe. Here’s a thought for the warden—invest in some dynamite.”
“Keep that fool quiet,” Boram snarled. “The Hammer’s looking over here.”
Kwado looked at Hobb to see if he had heard the gargoyle. Hobb’s glazed eyes were fixed on his feet. He bit his lower lip and squeezed his fingers around the pickaxe in a way that made Kwado uneasy. Hobb’s gaze flicked up to Kwado, then he stared hungrily back at the wall. Something was playing behind his tired eyes, something desperate that bent the logic of a sane man. Being this close to freedom for so many days was putting a strain on his resolve.
“Did you hear—”
“Yeah, I heard the stupid flying statue,” Hobb snapped. “Like I can trust anything he says.” He suddenly leaned too close to Kwado and whispered with wild eyes. “I think he’s been planning to kill me, Spike.”
Kwado chuckled nervously. “Don’t be silly,” he said with no conviction. “Boram’s just getting impatient, is all. He would never hurt you. Right?” He directed his question at the gargoyle, who just shrugged. Kwado growled at him, and by the time Hobb looked over, Boram was shaking his head.
“Of course not,” Boram said.
“Quiet over there!” the Hammer bellowed from across the cavern. His magazine lay in his lap, a sure sign he was annoyed. Kwado thought he looked very much like a dog that had caught a scent. He turned and bowed to the warden then resumed his mining.
Hobb just stared at the rock wall, holding his pickaxe close to his chest. His knuckles were white as bone.
“Get back to swinging,” Kwado hissed.
Hobb’s lips trembled. “Stupid Hammer…dumb bloody sonuva horse’s arse. Always yapping at us…always telling us what we should do…”
“By the Nine,” Boram said. “Shut your mouth, he’s still watching you.”
“Let him look,” Hobb muttered. “Let him come right over here and get a nice gander so I can crack his fat mug in half with my axe.”
“Now he’s done it,” Boram groaned, shifting a few paces away from them.
Kwado glanced over his shoulder. The Hammer was marching across the cavern, his eyes locked on Hobb’s back. “Damn it, man, get a hold of yourself,” Kwado said.
Hobb’s shoulders shook as a laugh spilled from his lips. It was the sound of a man bordering on hysteria. His eyes were wide, too wide, and suddenly bloodshot. He mumbled something under his breath, but the words came out too rapidly for Kwado to understand.
“What’s that mad fool on about?” the Hammer shouted as he passed the rockcrusher. “Need a good beating, does he?”
It took Kwado a moment to realize the Hammer was addressing him. “Oh, no sir. He’s just a bit out of sorts after that cold he had last week.” He grabbed Hobb by the shoulder and squeezed, leaning in to whisper in his ear. “You have to get a grip now. He will kill you.”
“Whispering little ninnies, is it?” the Hammer said, coming up the slope just behind them. Kwado’s eyes tightened on the warden’s hand. He already had his blade out.
Hobb turned to face the Hammer with the wild grin of a madman. “Let him try.”
“What’s that now?” the Hammer said. His words rang like a bullet through the cavern. All the prisoners watched. Hobb’s behavior was too weird not to.
Kwado released Hobb and turned to face the Hammer. Hobb’s hands tightened around the shaft of his axe. The Hammer paused when he saw the mad look in the man’s eyes. He studied Hobb’s hands. They were determined, ready. The Hammer’s own eyes turned dark. His body grew tight.
Kwado closed his eyes. So close…they had been so close.
The sound of exploding rock shook the cavern. He opened his eyes to find everyone looking at the mine entrance. Outside the tunnel, people were shouting. The Hammer was already halfway across the cavern, heading for the entrance. Kwado did not know such stubby legs could pump that fast.
As the warden made it to the face of the cavern, another guard came up the tunnel in a hurry, smiling from ear to ear. “The storm’s here, hoss!” the guard squealed.
All around the cavern, prisoners cheered. Not a one of them relished sleeping in the rain, but the growing storm had kept everyone on edge for days. Better to get it over and done with.
The Hammer clasped forearms with his comrade. “Jomus be praised.”
“Everything alright in here?” the guard asked, noticing the Hammer had his weapon drawn. The Hammer turned back to face Hobb. All of the prisoners watched the two slavers, all except one.
Hobb was happily whistling as he chipped away at the wall with his pickaxe.
The Hammer snickered and shook his head. “Just too much friction in the air, pally-o. Nothing like a good rain to cleanse the spirit.” He shared a jigger of whiskey with the guard then returned to his magazine.
The prisoners all fell back to work, and Boram shook his head at Hobb.
“That was close,” Kwado whispered, his heart still beating a million miles a minute.
“Chin up, Spike,” Hobb said cheerfully. “We’re getting out of here tonight.”