The barracks hadn’t been used for years. It was a conclave of abandoned, ex-military shacks – seven, in all, and surrounded by a tall wooden fence. These basic structures were set up in a line in the far east of the underground, in a district that, on new Imperial maps, was now declared unimaginatively as Underground South Three, but which was named, according to the Cavesiders, ‘Freetown’. The cavern that formed one half of Villjamur was enormous, stretching across for miles, like the stomach of a stone god. The plates of glass that lined the cavern ceiling like a sparkling, monstrous ribcage, brought some elements of reflected daylight into the caves, but only stretched so far. Freetown was spawned in one of the many regions of gloom.
Here, Shalev promised, there would eventually be light.
Due to the crime levels in the outer city, such ‘dark’ zones were now patrolled by a cursory guard unit of just one old-timer, who spent more time sat in his little shed catching up on sleep, possibly dreaming of the military glories of his youth, than engaging in genuine surveillance work. And these days the army was out mounting big operations across the Boreal Archipelago, freeing the locals from oppression in the name of the Empire. Shalev had explained that, in reality, this meant clearing islands of tribes, shattering communities, and forcing open trade and slave labour markets in order to fuel Villjamur. On islands where the Empire could not go, Maour, Dockull, even the Varltung Nations, Villjamur armed and funded tribal warlords to slaughter the resistant locals so that trade routes could, at the very least, become established.
That was why barracks like this, which could be found in several districts of Caveside, stood empty: the soldiers were out preparing the roads where industries would travel.
All these buildings did now was emit putrid smells and spawn urban stories. But they could be more than this. The Cavesiders needed to make a statement, something that would add to the frustrations of the ruling elite. Here, in these abandoned barracks, was shelter and relative warmth and hope for the refugees camped outside the city’s walls.
That was where Shalev was now, outside, smuggling in dozens over one of the walls at a location known by only a handful of Cavesiders. Caley had heard there were to be ropes, ladders, subterfuge and decoys, but most of all there were to be relics. Shalev had enlisted the help of other cultists and they were erecting a momentary wall of invisibility to hide the refugees’ movements. It was incredible what Shalev had done for these people – for Caley. She had given him a will to exist. His life suddenly had purpose. For a few years he had lived with an unemployed uncle who practically scavenged and begged to get by. Caley would willingly have worked for a living, if there were any jobs to be found, but as there weren’t he instead chose more illicit paths. But now, thieving had become his work. He was making a contribution with it.
People down here were no longer an afterthought of the Council, no longer just criminal gangs running through dirt tracks around poor housing estates and ugly architecture. They had become a concern for those in the outer city, who wouldn’t look twice at someone from Caveside. They were noticed. Caley enjoyed causing havoc out there, but not running into those fuckers, the Knights.
He waited until one of the Jorsalir bells rang out six times. A moment later, when the sun was just setting outside, the glass that refracted in the light suddenly stuttered and cast the caves into darkness.
He ruffled his hair to look the part. He was dressed in fine clothes – black breeches, white silk shirt, embroidered cloak – too fine for a typical Cavesider, and filched from the outside. Mentally he rehearsed the better accent of someone from the upper city; he stumbled forwards across the dirt road to the guard hut, which was made from metal sheets. There were windows on each side, and a lantern burned within. Caley kicked on the door, and shouted through the window.
‘Hey!’ Caley screamed, and the guard sat up startled, brushing down his moustache and doing his best to pretend he had been anything other than asleep. ‘Hey, come quick! Some men have just taken my mother into an alleyway. I’m from the second level of the city and I do not know anyone. Please, you must help her. They’re going to . . . going to . . .’
The soldier’s eyes narrowed, as if he’d waited years for such a moment. ‘Worry not, lad.’ He leapt up, grabbed his sword, pushed open the door and shuffled out after him.
‘This way,’ Caley said with pseudo-desperation, and trotted down a network of streets, surprised that the guard could keep up, especially with all that armour and the heavy uniform. He rattled behind and, breathlessly, Caley led him behind an old slaughterhouse, where the others were waiting.
The old man was surrounded on three sides by dozens of masked, weapon-wielding anarchists who were still bleeding out of the gaps and from rooftops. A granite wall stood behind him preventing his escape. He peered around, a desperate man, whilst Caley backed off behind his comrades. Torch flames flickered mellow light across the yard.
A voice called out, one of the women – one of Caley’s sisters. ‘Do you yield, soldier?’
‘Never!’ the old man crowed, and brandished his sword like a magical enchantment. ‘I represent the Emperor’s name. What do you want?’ he demanded.
‘We’re reclaiming them barracks,’ she replied. ‘Whether you live or not – doesn’t much matter to us.’
The soldier pressed his back against the wall, shaking now, his gaze darting this way and that, his shortness of breath apparent. Then, quite calmly, he bellowed, ‘In the name of the Empire!’ and charged forwards.
Two shots from crossbows impacted with his face: his head snapped backwards and he crumpled into the dust.
‘Nice one, Caley,’ one of his brothers muttered, while the gang moved to help dispose of the body. Caley breathed heavily as he watched the old man so casually dragged into the rear of the slaughterhouse. ‘You all right, kid?’
Caley breathed a ‘Yeah.’
One of the brothers placed a hand on his shoulder. ‘You got to remind yourself of what’s gonna happen now. Gonna be dozens brought in from the ice, you hear? Dozens of lives saved. This man, he’s happily gone for nothing more than an image on his uniform, that seven-pointed fucking star – he went how he wanted to go. That star means nothing to us, but meant everything to him, you hear?’
Caley reminded himself of what was at stake here. He swallowed. He accepted. They set to work preparing the barracks for their new inhabitants.
After an initial assembly meeting, in which roles were established, an hour passed, two, then three, and before they knew it they had made the barracks hospitable. Fifty-five Cavesiders scrubbed the buildings, removed debris, washed floors, whilst several artists painted cheerful murals across the walls to make things attractive. They brought in bedding, clothing, stoves, utensils, tools – luxuries acquired from the outer city and provisions they had grown themselves, utilizing cultist relics, in attic rooms or vacant patches of dirt.
Even though he was used to the amazing levels of organization that Shalev had brought with her, Caley was staggered at how quickly and thoroughly they were revitalizing this dead zone of Villjamur.
Caley himself helped to accumulate any ex-military junk metal, which would be wheeled out to skilled smiths for them to reclaim for a better use; it wasn’t glamorous work, but it was to help other people. It seemed more satisfying somehow – all the jobs he’d ever held had been performing dreary manual labour, or running errands, or whatever he could get his hands on, so to be doing all of this for the community brought him a strange kind of sensation, and he wasn’t even sure what that was.
He was constantly peering over his shoulder, wondering if the military would come and interrupt them, but no one came, no soldier, no politician, no one from the outer city. Most importantly, there were no Knights.
The faces of the refugees would forever haunt him. Gaunt and malnourished, their stares went right through Caley, in a worryingly passive way as if they had already given up on life. Wearing muddied and bloodied rags, reeking of shit and piss, they filed past meekly, steered by his brothers and sisters through the dark passageways, groaning and moaning in a variety of dialects, women and children and some men following. They needed medical aid – quickly. Caley guided about twenty into the farthest cabins, and they were willing to do anything he said. The level of power he had over them made him feel immensely uncomfortable. They had come from all over the Empire, from distant islands that he had heard mentioned perhaps once or twice. Broad and tanned faces, heavy accents, some that could not fully speak Jamur.
‘Are you Caley?’ a woman asked. She wore a plain yet expensive-looking shawl, and her blue eyes and bright blonde hair startled him. The thickset grey-haired man beside her was equally well dressed, in smart green cloak and tunic. He carried a black leather bag.
‘Yeah,’ Caley replied.
‘We are here to help,’ the man declared, his accent refined. ‘We’re both medical practitioners, and we are skilled in herb-lore . . .’
Caley had heard tell of this couple, who lived on one of the high, fancy levels of Villjamur, but were willing to help those in need even, it seemed, Cavesiders and refugees. Caley felt intimidated by their presence, but tried to recall some of Shalev’s lessons. ‘Couldn’t have come soon enough,’ Caley muttered. ‘It’s pretty dire.’
‘We’ll get right to it.’ The couple instantly began dressing wounds: open sores and frostbite.
The place stank. He leaned by the blonde woman and whispered, ‘I’ll leave you to it – we need water here.’
‘That’s OK,’ she replied, adding, ‘brother.’
He left her, feeling bad that he had not asked her name.
In the darkness of one of the cabins, he gathered several of his own people and suggested that a system be put in place to bring water from the docks, sanitized with relics. People ran out to spread the word, and Caley felt proud then that his input had been noted. He watched them leave and gazed at the hubbub outside the barracks, at the people who marched back and forth distributing supplies, then he felt a hand on his shoulder.
It was Shalev. She was beaming. His nerves got the better of him, and he found that he didn’t know what to say to her.
‘How is everything going here, brother?’ she asked, in that thick accent.
‘Good,’ he mumbled. ‘Well, as good as can be hoped, I think. Yeah. Did you, uh, have any trouble?’
‘Of a kind,’ she replied, eyeing the scene at the barracks with pride. ‘One of our invisibility shields collapsed, bringing some of the city guard to our side, but we . . . despatched them efficiently.’
‘Were the Knights out?’ he asked, with awe.
Shalev shook her head. ‘We had decoys, of course, a cluster of incidents on the other side of the city.’
‘Wow, you had it all planned, Lady Shalev,’ Caley replied.
‘Sister will suffice,’ she replied. ‘No titles. There is far too much elitism involved. No, I do not think these Knights are even aware of their situation. As individuals they are no problem to me. As a group – as a symbol – they are little more than something in which the populace can place their hopes. They are merely for political gain – unlike us, they have no substance.’