Tale #14: Svalbrynd Chain Gang

The Axis of Steel is a coalition comprised of the technocrat city of Altonar in the middle, the Kaltani fiefdoms of Ravensburg to the north, and the Angel Saxon and Skôt colony of Svalbrynd to the south. The alliance was founded in 598 GE when Altonar was looking to severely enhance its iron supply lines, looking both to the Iron Belt, certainly a large deposit, though one with magical resistance to strip mining, and to the Nordmen, who had an unusual access to the coveted metal through the Old Gods. Though many voices in the Middle Lands and the Yamato Kingdom clamored against the last truly non-isolationist bastion of technocracy allying themselves with the war-mongering Nordmen, ultimately a lot of stability came to the Great Land and the Corsic Ocean thanks to this unlikely alliance.

- Fact 114 taken from Old Tim's One Hundred Facts about Aqualon, Volume 2

 
Harder, hit, ram that pick
Into crust of iron!
Boiling blood, flowing thick!
Mine the metal, brick by brick!

Sing of lands beyond the red,
digging deep into our heads,
Break the chains out of the ground
forge them red so we are bound!

  Peter shook his head, looking appalled at the operation. In the lower level of the massive strip mining operation, walking in barely wrapped feet on rusty iron ground, chains wrapped around their ankles, the rows of slaves were driving picks into the ground to free chunks of iron from it. The metal was resilient and that due to more than its hardness: a strange magic had run through the Iron Belt since ancient times, making it difficult to mine. The steel picks would be no match for the ground, were they not engraved with powerful Angelscript. The runes and markings glowed across the shiny metal surface as the implements were swung down and into the iron skin of the Rusty Shore, following the tact of the chain-gang chant.   "Ho! Ho! Drive that stick! Bite the metal with that pick!" Enfleda the Overseer boomed down to the masses, joining their sing-song for a line. "Ha-ha-ha! That's what I'm talking about! Look at the chunks of precious ore, Peter of Department C!"   Peter scrunched up his nose and looked at the woman in a mixture of apprehension and disgust. Her golden hair flew in the arid breeze that swept rusty dust across the flat expanse around the worker camp. There were grey specks in her green eyes and an expression on her face that could only be seen on people who reveled in carnage; so most Svalbrynd Nords, Peter supposed. Behind them, the mighty island lay, but before them, the slaves hacked their way into the Iron Belt. "Just Peter will do, Overseer. You cannot expect us to accept this. This is... inhumane! Slavery, of all things!"   Enfleda spat. "You're a soft man, Peter of Department C. But this land is hard. Only hard men and women can work it, and only slaves will. The picks are inscribed with Angelscript, they strain and drain the soul, the metal ground swelters in the sun, and when we least expect it, it bites back so savagely, most wish it was a shark instead."   "We'll make machines to do the work! The Rust Barons use a smelt mining approach, we can do it better and bigger. There is no need for this savagery!"   "Pah, you know nothing, Peter of Department C! We culled none of these in raids; Svalbrynd Nords take no slaves. But we do buy them. It keeps up good relations with the Pirate Lords and provides the labor we need to work the mines. If they work hard enough or if they prove their worth in combat, we release them. I call that mercy!"   Harder, hit, ram that pick!
Iron for the island!
Boiling blood, flowing thick!
Mine the metal, brick by brick!

Burning iron in the sun,
But sweet the air with freedom won,
Hair of white and eyes of blue
We pay the price, the bill comes due!

Ho! Ho! Drive that stick!
Bite the metal with that pick!
When the land begins to sing,
Say farewell to home and kin!

  Peter stared at her angrily: "That's a load of 'scite' as you Nordmen are so fond of saying! You buy the slaves, you keep the slave trade afloat, you're a cog in a barbaric industry."   Enfleda grinned at him. It was not a friendly grin between friends. It was the sort of grin one would expect to see on a hound or bear: a show of teeth, a presentation to ensure the viewer of their adequacy as implements of death. "You and yours like throwing that word around, Peter of Department C. 'Barbarian'."   "No, I... I apologize."   "Backing down like a truly civil man indeed! You know, my kind built halls of stone and forged miracles from steel when you and yours still huddled for warmth in houses made from brittle timber. We all have our traditions, Peter of Department C. We all reevaluate them from time to time. Tonight, you'll join me in the arena, and we will see some of these men earn their freedom. Perhaps you'll gain a new perspective on our ways down here. Perhaps not. Tomorrow, we'll talk more about... smelt mining." She winked at him and turned her attention back to the chain gang.   Peter bit his lip. It was unlikely he would change his mind after seeing a couple of slave workers fight each other in brutal combat. That certainly didn't sound less barbaric to him.   "Now let us move on to..." Enfleda stopped and lifted her fist. A military gesture, Peter knew, which was intended to compel him to stop and be quiet.   He raised a brow.   Work, work, until you're sick
Then keep on swinging down that stick!
Drink, drink, in the white,
Drink the blue with all your might!

  "Do you hear something?" she asked, clearly prick-eared about a sound she thought she had heard.   "You mean the singing or the clinking?" Peter inquired his brow still raised.   Ho! Ho! Drive that stick!
Bite the metal with that pick!
When the land begins to sing,
Say farewell to home and kin!

  "Perhaps it was nothing..." she said, her guard lowering again.   Now he harkened. Something was indeed mixed into the backdrop of steady, rhythmic noise. "Wait, I do hear something. It's a sort of bright hum, slowly building up perhaps?"   "Gods above!" Enfleda exclaimed. "You're right!" She lifted her hand and put her fingers in her mouth, producing an ear-splitting whistle that stopped the song below. The hum continued, now louder and more audible through the sudden quiet. "Get out of there you bloody pick-rats!" she screamed, before leaping towards Peter and dragging him down to the ground with her.   "Wha-!" he yelped before the air escaped his lungs.   A mighty, otherworldly roar blasted across the Rusty Shore, and to Peter's utter surprise, the rust that covered the ground beside his face turned into dust and blew away in the breeze, revealing pure, shiny iron beneath it. The ground, usually hot around this time of day was as cold as ice, and Peter, to his great bafflement, could see his breath condense in the air.   When Enfleda carefully prodded herself up, he noticed her hot breath turning away from his face. She held out a hand to help him on his feet. Still disoriented, it took a moment for him to get his bearings, but he heard clanking and moaning from below.   He ventured a look and was utterly horrified: A white sheen had cut across parts of the Rusty Shore here, and none of it was rusty anymore. Only pure iron shone in the bright midday sun. And a chunk of the slave miners had been frozen in place, while some 'more fortunate' ones had been only partially struck by whatever event had occurred, legs or arms broken off as if they were stone statues. Though most workers had survived, the ones that hadn't presented a pitiful sight.   Peter couldn't keep it in anymore. He keeled over and vomited onto the iron ground, soiling it with acrid chunks. "Wha... what happened..." he croaked.   Enfleda stared down. After a moment, she raised her voice, singing: "When the land begins to sing, say farewell to home and kin!"   The men and women below lifted their picks and sundered the frozen chains still connecting them to their dead comrades. Then they turned to the front again and continued their grim work:   Harder, hit, ram that pick!
Iron for the island!
Boiling blood, flowing thick!
Mine the metal, brick by brick!
— A story from the founding years of the Axis of Steel


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