The Escape: Part 1
The straps over my shoulders tightened as another load of the broken stone was dropped into the basket on my back. My knees buckled a little, but I took the load. Pitching your basket onto the ground down here in the mine was not advised, not unless you enjoyed the tender ministrations of the overseer’s whip. A slap on my shoulder and I began my journey back towards the entrance shaft, carrying my basket of rock while stumbling over the rough ground. The air was thin and smoky, the light from the oil lamps, sitting in nooks cut into the walls, dim. Other men with empty baskets passed me, shuffling their way back to the rock face, eyes vacant and motions sluggish. Too much like me.
I felt a familiar dip in the ground and ducked my head. I’d bashed my head off that unseen shelf of rock frequently in the early days, but it was second nature to avoid it now. I could almost walk this route blind. When a lamp or two went out I’d had to. Day and night meant nothing here. I had no idea if the hours were passing fast or slow, or even if they were passing at all. Time meant absolutely nothing. I had no idea how long I’d been here. I knew it was more than a few months, but I couldn’t be more precise. I reached the entrance shaft and tipped my basket into the wooden crate as I gasped down lungful after lungful of clean, cool air before turning around and starting my walk back to the rockface to collect another basketful.
Once more I completed the trip, delivering my rocks to the entrance shaft. Twice more. This was my day, back and forth, hauling rock. At least I wasn’t on a chain gang. Those men at the rockface, chained together, ankle to ankle, with only enough slack between them to get a pace and a half from the next man. While I hauled my basket of rocks, they hammered and hammered, without relief, driving steel picks into the rock until the area they were working on collapsed. Other men would hammer the liberated rocks with hammers, smashing them down to a more manageable size. Others, the weakest down here, would fill the baskets and then we’d carry the lot out. Most days several men would collapse from exhaustion. Some died, some recovered, but in the end, we all knew that we were expected to die down here. That was the point. Every man here was a criminal of one sort or another. Except me of course, I wasn’t supposed to be here. I’d been set up. In the beginning, I’d tried thinking of ways to escape. A few of them had even seemed plausible. There was one insurmountable problem. My jailers knew that I wouldn’t abandon my honour. They used it against me from the beginning.
I’d woken up in the back of a solidly built cart. My hands had been secured behind my back and my legs bound and chained to a metal loop secured to the bed of the cart. Uksem had been similarly bound beside me. I’d been unconscious for a few hours and I’d felt it. I was weak from the fight I’d ultimately lost and my head ached abominably. Even still, I’d still looked better than Uksem who had been beaten and kicked even after being disarmed. Me they’d been wary of and that may have saved my life. We’d been taken to the nearest garrison fort, a few miles away from Ernas and tossed into a small cell. For two days we’d been kept there, fed nothing but a thin gruel and oddly tasting water. Eventually we had been thrown into the back of another cart and secured. We’d been taken to another town, Annon I’d heard one of our guards call it. Another cell and another few days languishing in a squalid cell.
I awoke one morning and found a familiar face looking through the bars at me. The rat bastard that had killed the Cheuten King and blamed me for the act. Ivo Aradus. Two people, a man and a one-armed woman, stood beside him.
“That’s him.” Aradus said to my jailer.
“Doesn’t look so dangerous to me.” My jailer remarked.
“Are you sure you can deal with him?” Aradus asked the one-armed woman, a warrior I judged, by her manner.
“I’ve dealt with his kind before.” She replied shortly. “I’ll take them both.”
Aradus nodded. “Very well. They’re yours.”
The cause of my imprisonment glanced in my direction, a smirk on his lips.
“This could have been much easier for you Taril.” Aradus said, humorously. “You only have yourself to blame. Enjoy what’s left of your life, I’m assured it won’t be a long one.”
I growled impotently from where I was bound, my shackles preventing me from reaching the man and driving my fist through his throat. Aradus laughed and walked out of the room, leaving my jailer and the woman behind.
“Get one of your men to bring me a red-hot coal from your fire.” The woman ordered our jailer. “The savages and I need to come to an understanding.”
The man nodded and stuck his head out of the door, muttering orders to the warrior outside. A few moments later, another warrior entered the room, holding a glowing coal in a pair of tongs. The woman opened our cell door and walked in, gesturing for the warrior with the hot coal to follow. She knelt beside me and slapped me across the face.
“I want you to know that I have no respect for you. You belong to me and you will do as you are told. Do you understand?”
“Set me free and I’ll teach you to respect me.” I growled.
The woman sighed. “You’re young, and the young always need to be taught. A lesson on good behaviour then. In a moment, you’re going to tell me to use that red-hot coal there to hurt your companion. You will do it. Do you understand?”
I laughed. “You must be mad. Why would I possibly want to hurt Uksem.”
The woman shrugged. “And yet you’ll ask me to do it.”
I rolled my eyes.
The woman gestured to our jailer. “Hold the big one still.”
“What are you doing?” I demanded. “I didn’t ask you to do anything.”
“Your refusal to respect me, forces me to do this. Remember, you’ll ask me to use the coal on your friend.”
I swivelled around as best I could and stared at the woman as our jailer held down Uksem, who was too weak to offer much resistance.
“Hold out his hand.” The woman ordered.
The jailer smiled grimly and forced Uksem to place his hand flat on the ground. The woman drew a knife and moved over to Uksem.
“There’s still time to ask me to use the coal.” She advised me coldly.
I kept my mouth shut. What in the void was she doing?
The woman took her knife and quickly sliced off Uksem’s right little finger.
Uksem shouted in pain, and blood spurted out from the stump on to the ground.
“What in the Void are you doing?”
“I told you. If you had obeyed me and asked me to hurt your friend with the coal, this wouldn’t have happened.”
“Alright!” I shouted. “I understand. I will obey you, just stop the bleeding.”
The woman quirked an eyebrow. “Are you giving me orders?”
I swallowed my anger, with an effort. “No, but please bandage his wound.”
“I fear I have nothing with me to stop the bleeding.”
My heart dropped in my chest. I knew what she wanted.
“The coal.” I whispered hoarsely. “Use the coal.”
“Good boy.” The woman replied.
She took the tongs from the warrior and pressed the still hot coal to the stump that was all that remained of Uksem’s little finger. Uksem howled in pain, as the coal cauterized the wound and stopped the bleeding.
“This is a lesson for you both.” The woman informed us as she handed the tongs back to the warrior. “If one of you annoys me, the other one will suffer. Do you understand?”
“Say it.” The woman hissed.
“If one of us annoys you, the other will suffer.”
Then she left. The next day we were on a cart bound for the mines.
That had served as my introduction to the overseer of the mine, Estrith.
Wait for my basket to be filled. Start walking, one foot in front of the other. Don’t fall. Empty the basket. Turn around. Walk back to the rock face, one foot in front of the other. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. A low rumble brought me out of my daze, but before I could comprehend the source, choking dust filled the air and something knocked me from my feet.
I woke. I could feel pressure all around me, holding me in place. In the darkness I could hear people crying for help, begging. I heard more than one person praying, but Sara’fi, the Golden Lady of Life, couldn’t hear us down here. We were deep in Alma’at’s domain, and he had reached out to claim us. It was foolish to try and fight the Lord of the Deep, one just had to accept one’s fate. It was easy, all you had to do was nothing, just relax and let it happen. I smiled to myself. It was over. I could rest. I closed my eyes and waited.
Shouts of anger interrupted my repose and I heard rocks starting to move. Before long, I saw the light of a lamp, and moments later hands grabbed me and pulled me out from beneath the rubble.
“He’s bruised and battered but no broken bones. Maybe a hit to the head.” Someone grunted.
“Get him out of here.” Another voice ordered.
I was pulled upright and pushed into a stumbling walk back to the entrance shaft. Once there, a rope was lowered, and I was lifted out. I rose into the darkness of a bitter winter’s evening and was deposited on the freezing mud beside the entrance to the mine shaft. One of the camp guards pushed me into a group of similarly muddy, haunted slaves and we were marched to our compound. I found a vacant spot on the ground and fell into a deep sleep.
I woke a few hours later as a bell was rung. Food. I hadn’t eaten all day and I was starving. I dragged myself to my feet and shuffled as best I could to where the rest of the slaves were queuing. I pushed past the weaker slaves, and even past some of the stronger ones. I had established myself early on and I had a reputation, but I was weaker now, than I had been then, and there were always challengers to the status quo. I joined the line close to the front and waited. Usually I was left alone but this wasn’t to be one of those times. A meaty hand grabbed my shoulder.
“Where d’you think you’re goin little man?”
I turned as if to leave, but instead drove my foot straight up between my challenger’s legs. He was a big man, meaty, and clearly newly arrived. He was doing what anyone who arrived here did, establishing himself. He’d need to learn to pick his targets though. The man cried out in pain and I followed up the kick with a solid punch to his throat. He gagged as he tried to breathe, and dropped to his knees, his face turning red. I pushed him over and took back my place in the queue. I didn’t have the energy to waste on a stand-up fight. If nothing else, this at least would keep me safe from challenge for another few days. I reached the end of the line and took my wooden bowl of thin but hot stew and a lump of stale bread and retreated to a corner to eat it.
I woke the next morning, painfully. I had bruises on bruises, on bruises, but my mind, for the first time in what seemed like an age, was rested. I groaned as I rose to my feet and shuffled towards the door of the compound. It would be opened soon and we’d be herded back down into the mine. I used the time to breathe the chilly predawn air deeply and once again, try to find a way out of here. I now knew how perilously close I’d come to giving up. How far I’d fallen. I needed to find Uksem and try to figure a way out. I was not going to die here, as Equo’la was my witness, I’d get escape or die trying.
The chains on the gate rattled and the door opened. The overseer marched into the compound and looked around, eyeing all of us slaves, counting. She held a coiled whip in her hand, a threat to all of us to behave or feel her ire. She turned to me and let the whip uncoil.
“I see you’re still with us tribesman.”
I nodded, avoiding meeting her eyes.
“You killed a healthy man last night. Did you know that?”
I shook my head dumbly. I hadn’t hit him that hard, maybe enough to bruise his throat, but not enough to kill.
“You’ve cost me a good slave, after not having the decency to die in the mine.”
I quaked. Not for myself, but for Uksem.
“I’ll be keeping a closer eye on you from now on.” The overseer purred. “One more misstep and your friend dies, slowly, while you watch every moment of it.”
I stared at the ground, waiting.
“Strip him.” She ordered.
The guardsmen with her grabbed me and cut my ragged clothes off, leaving me in just my skin.
“Against the wall.” She ordered.
I turned and placed my hands against the wall, hearing the whip swish back and forth. A pause and then I felt the searing pain of the whip across my back. I cried out, it was useless to resist. The more you resisted, the more she hurt you. Again, and again, the whip licked against my bare back. Ten times I felt the lash, ten times I cried out, ten times I swore silently to kill her. Then she was standing behind me.
“Test my patience again and you won’t just lose your friend.”
I felt her draw close, disturbingly close, and felt her reach around and grab my prick.
“You’ll lose this too. I’ll pickle it in a jar and put it on a shelf where all can see it.”
She squeezed me hard, and then let me go, walking off.
“Get them to work.” She ordered.
I sagged against the wall, weak and in pain. I wanted nothing more than to fall into a deep sleep and not wake for a year, but I couldn’t afford to show anymore weakness to my fellow slaves. I stood tall and walked towards the gate of the compound. There were several discarded tunics thrown by the wall, and I grabbed one likely to fit. I found a ragged, mud encrusted pair of woollen leggings beneath the tunic and pulled them on. I couldn’t afford to be choosy. I followed the last of the slaves out of the compound and made my way to the mine shaft, under the watchful eyes of the camp guards.
The mining camp comprised of three walled fortifications. The slave camp, with it’s high wooden walls, the overseer’s compound, a small stone walled fort, complete with watchtowers on the corners and several buildings inside, and the mine entrance itself, surrounded by a wooden wall and several watch towers. A few buildings were inside the walls, storehouses for the rock we dug out of the ground. I had no idea where Uksem was, but I suspected that he was put to work on the surface, hauling rock into the storehouses. I kept my eyes open as we were marched to the mine entrance, but I saw no trace of him.
One by one, we climbed down the ladder, down into the mine and collected our baskets. I hissed as I pulled the straps over my shoulders, my back raw from the whipping, but I had no choice. It was either work or die. The chain gangs were already at work, smashing rock, and there was a sizeable pile to be moved. One by one we made our way to the pile and waited as our baskets were filled. Then back to the entrance to offload. One step at a time. Don’t fall. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.