"This is definitely all new construction," said Ana thoughtfully. She traced a line on the rough parchment, squinting in the dim radiance of the lightstone. "Or should that be excavation?"

She realised none of her companions cared, and sighed quietly. Rikon and Tema were already helping each other to clamber over the pile of rubble that partially blocked the passge. Ana marked the gouges in the wall formed by the picks of Thule slave workers. She shook her head.

"You're the architect!" shouted Ulan from the other side of the spoil heap. "You should know!"

Jeorg winced at the noise. His family were miners, and he had been warning the party repeatedly about the dangers of loud noises and not paying attention to their surroundings. He squatted at the top of the rubble pile, reaching out one hand toward Ana, to help her over the treacherous heap.

"It's important," Ana called back. "I know we're a fair depth down, but a collapse here could be brought on by construction above and then whatever caused it would fall in too. We need to know how far these tunnels go."

"Why should we care?" asked Rikon. "Soon enough it will be the orcs' problem!"

Ana bit back a retort. She could hear Ulan on the other side of the rocks explaining that a lot could happen between now and there being a new Empress. It was at times like this that Ana had to make a very real effort to remind herself that she loved her friends. Even if at least one of them was a fatuous idiot at times.

On the other side of the rubble, the tunnel narrowed sharply. Tema was several dozen feet down the corridor already, peering at something.

"That's odd," she said. And then vanished.

The others exchanged a quick look, then all of them except Jeorg ran to see what had happened. The older youth called after them to be careful - that if it was a collapse it would spread and they would be caught in it ...

There was a hole where Tema had been standing. A low groan went up from below.

"Are you hurt!" demanded Ulan. "Can you move! Are you alive! Tema answer me!"

The groan became louder and there was a sound of shifting stone.

It's alright ..." Tema's voice sounded a bit strained. "This massive heap of stone broke my fall ..."

"Can you move?" Ana was all business. Jeorg had already shucked a coil of thick rope from his broad shoulders, and was paying out length after length into the broken hole in the ground of the tunnel.

"Yes I think so ... I've lost my lightstone and ... yes ... I think I've broken my leg. Ouch."

Her four friends exhanged a look. Rikon shook his head. Typical Tema, who had once described two shattered ribs and a broken pelvis as "a bit painful."

As the lightest, Ana was the one volunteered to go into the hole after Tema. Jeorg and Rikon anchored the rope while Ulan held a lightstone out above her to give her some illumination.

Tema was propped up on her arms, wincing, on another heap of broken stones and gravel. She looked battered, and her leg was at an unnatural angle, but she was alive. Ana sorted through her pack to find a pot of salve, and examined the damaged limb.

"These things never get a chance to go off with you around!" She said, her tone light. Tema looked sheepish. Then frowned.

"There's something down here," she said. She pointed over Ana's shoulder. The Suaq, focused on applying the Ossean Balm smoothly didn't hear her friend for a moment. Tema repeated herself. Ana looked where her injured companion was pointing.

From up above, she could hear Jeorg calling down excitedly "I think you're on the other side of that collapse Ana! I told you there was something off about it! Didn't I say there was something odd?" Ulan muttered something, but Ana didn't catch it.

They were in a tunnel - and quite an old one by the look of it. No desperate gouging on the walls, just smooth stone. Polished even, and ... yes ... carved with runes. Ana checked that Tema was recovering, and then slip-slid down the rubble with her lightstone held up.

"Where are you going! There could be ... trogoni down there!" Ulan sounded worried. Ana called back that she was just taking a look and would be right back.

She ran fingers over the walls of the pasage. It was big - tall - larger than the tunnels she and her companions had been exploring for the better part of a day. Definitely constructed, rather than natural. And old. Very old. A repeating motif of Verys, Aesh, and Diras. White granite supports, beautifully crafted and expertly placed to support the passage. Breathtaking, in their way. The runes themselves were inlaid with weltsilver that caught the radiance from the lightstone and seemed to capture it as she passed, glowing faintly for several moments after she passed each rune.

Up ahead, the passage ended in a twelve-foot-tall archway, opening out into a chamber beyond. She went to see, moving quietly and cautiously. She could hear Tema swearing behind her. The Balm had clearly done the trick.

From somewhere up above she could hear Ulan calling "If there's anything valuable, we'll need to get a block and tackle ... we don't want to have to leave it for the damn orcs to find ..."

Ana said nothing. She simply stood in the archway, staring, without blinking. There was a ruin here ... deep under Gildenheim, beneath the cave of ice. It was dominated by a large structure - she could barely make it out. She stepped forward, across white granite flagstones. A structure of stone and mithril pillars, echoing designs she had seen when studying with master Kentin.

"What is it?" Tema had joined her in the archway.

"I think ... I think it's a runeforge."

"Wow." Tema sounded impressed, which was not a common occurrance. "Where did it come from? Did the Thule build it?"

Ana shook her head.

"I don't think the Thule built it. It looks ... too old. But you can see where they've cleared a bunch of rubble out of the way and ... yes, I think they were trying to repair it. Look there. And there." She pointed to obvious pieces of new construction - one of the pillars was clearly new, compared to the others.

"I've never heard of a runeforge under Gildenheim before," said Tema.

Ana nodded. "Me neither. I think ... I think I've worked out why the Thule were digging all those passages under the cave of ice. I think they knew this thing was here, and when they retreated they collapsed the passages to try and hide it again ... you know what they're like. They'd never destroy something like this, not if they thought they could get it back again."

There was movement in the tunnel behind them. The two young women could hear Ulan swearing and barking as he slid down the rubble heap.

"I think Ulan is going to need a really big block and tackle." Said Tema with a grin.

Overview

Under Gildenheim, in Skarsind, a small band of Winterfolk have made a remarkable discovery. A civil service investivation discovered multiple Thule tunnels beneath the runecarved cave of ice, dug during the occupation and then collapsed. A Winterfolk band was dispatched to investigate by the civil service, and while exploring the tunnels, they discovered an even deeper cave containing a partially collapsed structure - a runeforge.

A rune forge is a structure that allows the development of unique magic items and even artefacts. It is clear why the Thule would be interested in such a thing. There is some speculation that the entire invasion of Skarsind may have been an attempt to acquire this item. A preliminary search of the ruins found the remains of a human skeleton, which simple divination confirmed belonged to Ryv Ironbones, a Navarri rune worker believed taken into slavery by the Thule following the fall of Treji in Hercynia. His presence there surely cannot be a coincidence.

The Thule had obviously been attempting to repair or reconstruct the rune forge themselves, but when the Imperial armies forced them out of Gildenheim they collapsed the tunnels leading to the chamber containing in an attempt to conceal it's presence from the victorious Empire - perhaps intending to return one day and take up where they had left off.

Significance

The forge is extremely old, and has been damaged, but preliminary examination shows it could be repaired.comparatively easily - if the Imperial Senate chose to commission it. While much of the outer structure would need replacing, Winterfolk architects and students of the runes estimate that it would require 60 wains of weirwood, 50 wains of mithril, and 40 wains of white granite to do so. Labour would involve clearing tunnels, and shoring up the chamber, and would cost a minimum of 50 Thrones. However, repairing the damaged structure would take only six months, rather than the more usual year required to build one from scratch.

Much more pressing would be the matter of who would control the runeforge. When the reconstruction is complete a new Imperial title would automatically be created. The most likely path to appoint the director of the Gildenheim rune forge is for an Imperial or National position to be appointed by the Imperial Senate (or national senators, or through the Imperial Bourse. The title could be either an Imperial or National position - but as the runeforge is physically in Skarsind, this would mean that at this time it could only be a Wintermark national position, and that might be complicated by the recent motion to relinquish the territory to the Imperial Orcs. Anyone planning to seek national custodianship of the rebuilt runeforge would be wise .to seek out Magistrate Karkovitch to disuss the implications.

Resolution

The Imperial Senate has not commissioned the reconstruction of the rune forge at Gildenheim, but the opportunity still remains - the ruins do not seem to be going anywhere. However, now that Skarsind belongs to the Imperial Orcs, any attempt to rebuild the runeforge there as a national resource will mean it is given to the Orcs and not Wintermark.