The room stays silent for about thirty seconds after our jailor leaves, then chaos erupts as all the prisoners try to make sense of what we just heard. An inspection? Some of us going to the mines?
“I don’t wanna go!” I hear Anslow shout over the ruckus. “Whoever will be chosen dies! I’ve ‘eard about the mines. Dey give ya hell der till ya die!” The room quiets down at his proclamation, but another Dwarf pipes up in the stillness.
“I’d rather die out there than die in here! Who cares if it’s quicker or not, I just want to feel the sun on my face again!”
The noise surges again as other Dwarves jump in, calling out their opinions, shouting to be heard over each other. I stay silent, trying to take it all in. I don’t know anything of these mines they’re talking about, surely they can’t be worse than staying in here for another twenty years though. Going might even provide an opportunity to escape.
“Why are we still talking about this?” Bablok’s voice rises above the rest and breaks my concentration. “Whether we want to go or not, it won’t be up to us. They won’t be looking for volunteers.”
“Well why ever not smart-alek?” cuts in another Dwarf.
“Because it looks like we are too eager to get out, too eager to escape.” Bablok answers calmly. “I mean who would want to go somewhere even worse than this unless they believed they could get away during the transfer? They won’t want volunteers, because the volunteers will be the troublemakers.”
Babloks statement causes a round of grumbling, but I see his point, and some Dwarves do as well.
“There is nothing we can do besides wait and hope. We are prisoners after all, and all this talking can’t change the fact that we have no control over what happens to us.” Bablok finishes. Even the grumblings die away, cynical though his analysis might be, they all know Bablok is right. Who gets chosen now is entirely up to luck. Small hushed conversations spring up around the corners of the room, as Dwarves decide whether it would be luckier to stay or to go. I guess Bablok failed if he wanted to stop all conversation about the inspection, but he succeeded partially as well, because everyone stopped shouting about it.
I glance over at him, he is laying on his small pile of straw, and staring up at the ceiling. Based on what I’ve seen of Dwarves, he really is quite young. Probably not even old enough to be recruited.
“So do you want to go to the mines?” I ask him curiously.
“Of course!” he replies, “I might be able to escape and go back to my family. But they won’t choose me.”
“Why not?” I ask, “You look young and strong.”
“Yeah, but I just got in here, and I’m pretty sure I lack necessary requirements.”
“There are necessary requirements?” I ask.
“Two hands.” Bablok says, and lifts his right arm from underneath his cloak. I hadn’t noticed it before, probably because he kept it under his cloak, but his arm ended at the wrist. There was no hand, just a stump.
“Birth defect.” Bablok says to answer my shocked gaze. “I’ve never had two hands, but I can normally get along just fine with one. I suspect though, whoever is choosing us wants us to be capable of heavy lifting, which is rather difficult for me. This also disqualified me for the army, lucky I suppose.” He stares at his stump morosely. “Now I don’t know if it is lucky or not.”
We sit in silence, and the silence grows longer. I really don’t know what to say to that. Time passes, and eventually the chatter about the inspection dies away and is replaced by talk of other things. Guesses to the ingredients in the slop they give us, talk of the world outside, talk about least favorite guards. Time passes, I don’t know how much, but probably more than an hour. Eventually the click-clack of the high heeled boots our jailor wears returns, and is accompanied by another set of steps. I guess it’s time for the Inspection.
The chatter around me hushes as the door opens and our jailor comes in behind another Dwarf. The difference between them is startling to say the least. While our jailor is fat, unkempt, and an idiot, this other Dwarf is something else altogether. His uniform is neat and his beard is combed, while our jailor has last night’s rabbit stew spattered down his front and crumbs in his beard. From the way our jailor is treating him, I would say that this Dwarf probably has some sort of authority. Maybe he is a captain or something.
“We ‘ave plenty of prisoners for ya ta choose from, Sir!” Our jailor bables, wiping his hands nervously on his pants. “Der all healthy too! Not one of ‘em is sick!” He grins foolishly at the other Dwarf, like he is hoping for some sort of praise.
“Hmm…” The other Dwarf studies us for about ten seconds. “I want that one, that one, that one, the one in the corner cell, and him.” Bablok looks shocked as the Dwarf doing the inspection points to him. “I’ll get the rest from somewhere else.” The Dwarf finishes, and my brief happiness for Bablok is overwhelmed by a surge of disappointment. That’s it? I guess I’m going to stay here for another twenty-two years then. I know I should be happy for Bablok, but I just can’t right now. I must’ve gotten my hopes up that by some miracle I’d be chosen.
The jailor goes and unlocks the cells with the chosen inmates, some of whom look overjoyed, others devastated. When he reaches Babloks cell he hesitates.
“Are ya sure ya want dis guy? ‘e’s only got one ‘and.”
“What?!” the other Dwarf shouts. “I thought you said they were all in good health!”
Our jailor cringes away from the noise, like it physically hurt him. “‘E is in good ‘ealth. ‘E just doesn’t ‘ave a ‘and is all.”
“You idiot!” The other Dwarf berates him. “If he’s to go to the mines, he needs both hands! I’ll take that one in the cell with all the markings on the wall instead.” He points directly at me. The disappointment blossoms into excitement, but the closed off look of Bablok fills me with guilt at my eagerness. Is it really right for me to take his spot? He has a family that needs him, mine probably think I’m dead. My guilt grows stronger as the jailor turns to me.
“Ya sure ya want ‘im? Apar-ent-ly ‘ees an ex-elf-in-prince or somewhat.”
“Are you questioning my choices again?!” The other Dwarf thunders at our jailor, who cringes away again. “I don’t care if he is an ex-overlord of the purple pimpernel! The important part is that he is an ex-whatever, and that he has both hands and doesn’t go throwing himself down a well as soon as he gets there like a bunch o’ the last batch did! Now get him out of there and chain him to the rest of the lot.” Our jailor quickly gets me out of the cage and ties me to the other prisoners.
I look back at Bablok and shove down my guilt. It’s not like I chose to do this, right? I didn’t choose any of this. He tries to smile at me and mouths ‘good luck’ as we are led out of the room. My guilt surges again as I look at that half smile. But I can’t do anything. Just a cruel twist of fate that I got to know him right before, just a cruel twist of fate that decided to give him only one hand, just a cruel twist of fate that tossed him away and chose me instead. Nothing I could do. I keep mentally repeating the refrain as I walk through the prison. There was nothing I could do to make him come too. It’s not my fault. But his sad little half smile stays in my head, and the guilt stays with it. This isn’t the only time I’ve been spared while others suffer a fate I should share. When I was originally captured, no one else in my platoon survived. Although this scenario is completely different, it still sparks those same feelings that I thought I had laid to rest.
It was just luck, it’s not my fault.
We exit the jail, and I step into the sunlight for the first time in twenty-two years. I tilt my head up to feel the warmth on my face, and breath in deeply, trying to banish my guilt. I couldn’t have done anything. Something is wrong with the air though, it breaks through my thoughts and I cough.
Our chain of prisoners is led to a main group, and shackled in line. The Dwarf who chose us goes up to the front and we start off. I look at my surroundings, stony ground, mildly cloudy skies, grumpy Dwarven prisoners, trees on the horizon to our left, and to our right a group of buildings not too far away, with a smoke cloud hanging above them. Maybe that’s what’s wrong with the air. Is there possibly a fire over there? But the air doesn’t smell like burning wood, I’m not sure what it smells like. I cough again.
One of the Dwarves near me smiles at the buildings and murmurs “so close and yet so far from home.” I look at him, I don’t know him, he wasn’t from our group of cells.
“Where exactly are we?” I ask.
The Dwarf doesn’t even look up at me. I’m not even sure if he realizes I’m an elf. “On the outskirts of Abahak ‘course, how do you not know that?”
“I’m not from around here, and was unconscious during my transport to the prisons.”
“Hah! Country bumpkins! Ooh, I think I can see my house from here!”
I leave the Dwarf to his mumblings, and consider my situation. We are right near Abahak? That explains the strange air, the Dwarven capital city is big on industry, but it won’t help me escape. It does let me gain my bearings a bit though, I just need to find out where the mines we are going to are, and I can formulate a rough route home. A problem quickly arises with my plotting though; I don’t know where the current borders are, or the areas where the armies are situated. If I run into a Dwarven platoon while trying to escape, I’m dead.
As our small group trudges along we meet up with a bigger group of prisoners who are heading the same direction as us. I glance at them curiously, they are also chained together so none of us can run. As our two groups meet, the person in charge of the larger group takes command, and we are chained to that group as well. At this point we are just a big mess of chains. I idly wonder who has all the keys, or if there is a master key somewhere. I wouldn’t be able to find it from here of course, much less steal it, but it would be nice to know.
A couple of Dwarves from the new group are chatting, and I decide to listen in to them, they might know something about where these mines are.
“Do you know anything about the war front?” Says a black haired Dwarf quietly to a friend. My eyes widen, this is much more valuable information. A different Dwarf, overhearing the conversation starter, chimes in.
“I heard that the elves have advanced on the northern front, but we have taken a lot of the southern area and are on the brink of conquering the seas of Lake Tabahi. Unfortunately, the elves still hold their main coastal city, but they’ll give in soon enough. However, take this with a grain of salt, I heard it from a guy 2 months ago. We could have already driven the elves back out of the north by now.”
“We could have driven em out, or they could have taken over the whole north and retaken the south to boot.” Puts in a particularly grumpy looking Dwarf. The whole line gets into a flutter about the war after that. They start exchanging conspiracy theories, and what they’ve heard from guards.
I feel the hair on my neck rise, and look behind me. One of the Dwarves is staring at me. I feel a shiver of nerves as he smirks. “What about you, elf?” He says, loud enough for all the Dwarves around us to hear. The other Dwarves all perk up, and some glance towards me, surprise and disgust on their faces. Why did he have to announce it? I mean, I actually thought he would do something worse, but this is annoying too. It wasn’t like I was trying to hide it, it’s pretty hard not to notice that I stand a head taller than everyone around me, but I was hoping that nobody would assign meaning to it for a bit longer. Now people will either try to pick fights with me or just shut up when I’m near.
“I wouldn’t know,” I reply carefully, “I’ve been in Dwarven prisons for over twenty years now. My stories are probably the most out of date of all of these.” Most of the others cut me out of the conversation at that point, continuing to chatter to each other about the war. The pesky Dwarf, however, presses me again.
“Twenty years! So elves are sending babies to fight!” he jeers at me. I ignore him. This is getting ridiculous. I’ve heard this joke too many times already, and every Dwarf seems to think it is funny. I’m 142, I was 120 when I was sent to the warfront, but the Dwarves I tell never believe me.
Eventually I manage to lose the annoying Dwarf in the crowds, bending my knees slightly to make my height less obvious. I try to listen to the other prisoners talk some more, but now that everyone knows I’m an elf they shut up as soon as I get close. I can get nothing concrete on the war, but everyone seems eager to talk about it as long as I’m not in earshot. Soon one of the line guards gets mad enough with us that he hollers “SHUT UP you idiots! Or do I have to bring out the whip before we even reach the mines?”
After that we walk on in silence till it’s nearly dusk, and then we continue a bit further. My muscles feel like they’re on fire. I haven’t used them this strenuously in over twenty years, and doing pushups and pacing in my cell didn’t prepare them nearly enough. When we finally stop for the night, we are all given water and stew. The water is grimy and tastes funny. The stew is made with who knows what, and tastes absolutely awful. We still have to eat it however, or eat nothing. Of course the Dwarf guards eat better food than us. They have some freshly cooked rabbit stew that smells way better than what we have, and from the way they are tucking into it, it tastes better too.
After supper the guards unchain us in small groups and let us move around a bit. They watch us like hawks, but I manage to get away from the group that I traveled with and move to the larger group of prisoners, where another bunch of prisoners are stretching their legs. When our wrists and ankles are shackled for bed, nobody seems to notice that I wasn’t with this group originally.
I still want to hear more about the war, but I think I’ve harvested all the information I can from my previous group. Many of these Dwarves might be new to captivity, so I listen in the hopes of hearing more news about the war. If -no when- I escape, I want to know which areas to avoid in order to get home safely. Of course, no one wants to talk to an elf, but they grump much more easily with each other when I pretend to be asleep underneath a nearby tree.
Two Dwarven prisoners in particular are still sitting up by the fireside. They are far enough away that they can’t see me clearly, but close enough that I can listen in.
“Why is that elf still alive? I thought the King didn’t take prisoners.” says a particularly grimy Dwarf with an accent I have never heard before.
“Search me. Perhaps someone thought he might be valuable as a political prisoner? Then again, that wouldn’t explain why he’s here with us.” Says his neighbor, whose stench I can smell from my position underneath a nearby tree.
“Strange” he continues after a pause “I’ve never seen an old elf, and from what I’ve heard that boy says he’s been in prison for twenty years. Do you think it might be possible that elves don’t grow old?” That is actually suspiciously close to the truth.
“Well it’s either that or they just don’t send the fossils to battle, only the babies.” They both laugh at that, and then they are silent for a while. I almost think that they have fallen asleep until Grimy says. “Do you think they just forgot to kill him?”
“That seems likely, I mean how else would he have survived this long? You know, we could take care of that mistake for them.” said Stinky. I’m instantly alert. Grimy lets out a surprised squawk at these words. I slowly slide my hands to a nearby rock, if they try to attack me I will defend myself. But I don’t like the odds. Two against one, they are above me, my wrists and ankles are chained, and I only have a rock.
“And have us get in trouble for killing a fellow prisoner meant for the mines? Are you crazy? They might kill us to set an example if we did something like that! If we’re going to kill him, best wait till we get to the mines, it will be much harder to prove that he didn’t trip into a mineshaft then.” I mentally breathe a sigh of relief, and then realize that this is no more reassuring. They still will try and kill me, but I appreciate the delay. I’m really not in the mood or position to deal with an assasination attempt right now.
“I guess you’re right, Golik, like always.” says Stinky.
.“Not always, Chapeck, not always.” says Grimy.
So apparently Stinky is Chapeck and Grimy is Golik. And they will try and kill me once we reach the mines. Great. Another reason for a quick escape once I reach there.