“Surrender, maybe it won’t be so bad?” muttered Frida. She could still smell the dead preacher’s corpse rot and had convinced herself that it clung to her clothes. If she could burn them she would, at the earliest opportunity. Possibly these men only wanted Jacob as he looked like a wanted man, all scowls and seriousness.
The town had quietened down. The merchant’s caravan’s lamplight still illuminated the main thoroughfare, though that light barely reached the pit.
The men on the bank above them were a cohort of armed mercenaries. Frida was not alone in recognising them. These were the Organ Grinders, they did what the name suggests. They had nothing to do with monkeys. Cassidy and Jacob had thought that the Ironguard might arrive, the guard were well trained but Grinders had a reputation for creating nightmares. Grinders and Adders, these were tools of the old families.
The Grinders looked formidable; they all wore a leather banded armour cuirass painted with a crude human trapped in cogs. They pointed a variety of dangerous cylinders and bows at the four companions below.
An overweight, ferret eyed Grinder, stepped to the ditches rim. He cleared his throat and opened a sheet of onion paper. He positioned himself so the faint light from distant lanterns made the words visible.
“We’ve been instructed to inform you,” he began “That you are condisered...”
“What?” said Jacob.
“Condisered?” The Grinder shifted his paper into the light.
“Do you mean considered?” shouted Jacob. Frida nervously backed further behind him. The guy was big and maybe he’d stand a few rounds of lead before keeling.
“They’re about to kill us, I don’t think we should be pulling them up on reading skills” hissed Cassidy.
“I’m playing for time”, Jacob whispered, “or do you want to take them all on?”
“It’d beat standing here waiting for them” she snapped back. An arrow thudded into the ground by her foot.
“You finished?” asked the lead Grinder, “ Only I’ve been told that we don’t get paid unless this is read out to you, frankly I can’t be arsed, but essentially, you want to surrender your weapons and come with us,” he glared at Jacob, “and no questions”.
If only, so many of Frida’s options now began with those words. She had little fighting ability, that left running. Frida stepped back, using Jacobs’s bulk as a shield. In doing so, she stumbled over a tree root. Flailing her arms as she yelped and fell. She hit the mud hard. Cassidy, used the distraction to pull out her pistol. Nelya followed suit drawing her bow. By the time Frida looked up, two Grinders had dropped. One collapsed with an arrow embedded in his forehead, the other screaming where he stood, clutching a shattered forearm. Now we are going to die, thought Frida, should I bother getting back up? As she pondered this a dull metallic orb landed in front of her. Tiny vents opened across its surface. It let out an inhuman whine that increased in pitch. Frida recognised the machine; a discharger. The whine increasing in pitch to become ear-splitting . The others had grabbed their ears to drown out the sound. Frida knew what was coming next. She picked up the orb, throwing it high into the air. There was a blinding flash and a deafening noise, followed by a dull persistent humming. The effect was indiscriminate, now no one could see or hear. They stumbled around, Frida’s friends and the Grinders had all been in the discharger’s blast zone.
Frida stood up, she reached out blindly. Her fingers felt the warm skin of the Darklander flinch from her touch. They had to move, the dischargers’ effects were not permanent as a bullet would be. The Grinders refrained from firing into the ditch, whoever was paying clearly wanted them alive. The Grinders could wait for the effects to pass. They were still enough to cordon and corral four people.
Somebody pulled Frida, she dragged Nelya with her. They ran, slipping and stumbling along the ditch edge. Frida’s right foot splashed in the water. They were heading towards the ditch pipe. Mud sucked at their shoes, pulling at the soft leather.
Somehow Cassidy dragged them all into the heavy concrete pipe, cajoling them forward through a series of tight tunnels. Eventually they rested.
The world resolving itself as sight gradually returned. Cassidy sat cross-legged, a small burning candle in front of her. She was swearing, angry with herself and her new predicament.
Jacob and Nelya looked around the confined space; they were in a concrete tube. Smaller tubes ran along the walls. Some had split open, their interiors densely packed with fibrous semi organic capillaries.The root pipes that once carried nutrients to the cities. Frida had heard of this place, Fairfield had been built above some kind of derelict farm that still filtered water through underground pipes. Once purified, the water would percolate into an underground aquifer, fresh and leach worm free. This is why a settlement was built here. One of the pipes ran under The Oasis, maybe they were under there now.
Frida wondered how safe her horse was, the stables adjacent to Cassidy’s would be safe for a while but all her belongings were there. She wanted her horse; she wished to ride away from this madness. She reached for her tap box, holding the little metal device for reassurance.
“Are we safe here?” Nelya asked, watching the corridor. Everyone waited for a response.
Cassidy shrugged. The Grinders would be exploring the tunnels by now, after a short delay to collect torches and patch the wounded.
“How come you could see?” Frida directed the question at Cassidy.
“I had one eye shut for aiming” Cassidy replied.
“Been thinking,” Cassidy said, “and I don’t like where it’s going. No one sounded the alarm, the Domarah got people everywhere, think those Grinders could just walk into town. They must have come in the West gate when your people,” she indicated Frida, “came in the East.”
She nodded conspiratorially, Frida was lost. Should they make a break for the East gate or the West. She looked around for reassurance from Jacob. His eyes lit up, as he leaned towards her.
“I remember it now. If you are ever surrounded," Jacob grinned, his face seemed unused to it.
" Pray it’s by idiots.”