Four days of traveling pass, I don’t get much more news. I figure out we’re heading east, and hear that the mine harvests coal, which when burned, creates the smog that was outside of Abahak. I also heard a bit more about the war. According to the Dwarfs both the northern and southern fronts are at standstills along the borders of the lakes and the forces are spread rather evenly. I’m not sure how accurate all this is, but it will be all I have to go on when I escape.
After lunch on the fourth day of traveling we are called to a halt surprisingly early.
“What’s going on?” I ask the Dwarf next to me. He looks up at me through a pair of big bushy eyebrows.
“Well we’ve reached the mines o’ course!”
“Either that,” the Dwarf next to him says, “or the captain fell off a cliff.”
“But there aren’t any cliffs near here.” I say looking around me at the flat plains that stretch as far as the eye can see on both sides of us.
“Then that only leaves one option doesn’t it!” The second Dwarf chortles, and the first one snorts.
The Dwarven guards in our column stand at attention, and a beribboned officer rides by, shouting instructions to his men. I peer over the heads of the other Dwarves in the crowd, trying to see what’s happening. Sometimes my height, although a clear marker of my heritage, comes in handy. Up ahead I see a small cluster of buildings surrounded by a wall of barbed wire fences with guard posts placed throughout. Is that the mines? There certainly isn’t a lot of room for all of us, I wonder where everyone will sleep. Certainly not in the ramshackle buildings, there aren’t nearly enough of those. I watch curiously as some of the guards closer to the front unchain groups of prisoners and take them to a ramshackle hut.
The Dwarves around me chatter excitedly as our turn comes around and the guards unchain us from the main group and lead us into the hut. I blink in the sudden darkness as we enter, and wait for my eyes to get used to it. We are dragged over to a table where a bored looking guard sits, says something, and writes something down, then a Dwarf gets freed from our chain of prisoners, marched outside through a back door, and the guard who marched him out returns. This process is repeated and eventually my turn arrives.
The bored guard sitting in the chair calls “Next.” and I step forward. He looks at me, and blinks surprised. “What’s an elf doing here?” He says, I hesitate, wondering if he is asking me, but then the other guard, the one who unlocks prisoners and leads them away, says “It’s probably above our paygrade.”
“True. And right now I’m too tired to care honestly.” The sitting guard says. “I mean seriously, did they have to do a room inspection at 3 am? That’s just mean. And then, because my blankets weren’t straight ‘cause I’d been sleeping, I had to stay up the rest of the night on watch duty.”
“Ooof.” The other guard says chuckling.
“Prisoner,” the sitting guard continues, I don’t realize he is talking to me until he says, “Hey, Elf!” Then I glance up, and he continues. “We have a rather unique system here, overall we all work for the king, but us soldiers work for the captains, the overseers work for us, the supervisors work for the overseers, and you work for your supervisor. Life doesn’t have to be awful for you here, if you work hard and suck-up to the right people you might get promoted. Being promoted comes with benefits. Although, the chance of you being promoted is next to nothing, so you’ll have to work harder than most if you want to survive. Do you understand?” I nod and he continues, “Your number is 24601, don’t forget it.” Here he pauses, and looks down at his paper. “Hmm… Okay, your Overseer will be Thravic, and your Supervisor will be Bakken. Now follow my friend here, and get to work.” His friend unshackles me, and leads me out the back door.
I join a group of Dwarves who are rubbing their manacle free wrists, confused looks on their faces. I feel as befuddled as they do. I was not expecting such a nonchalant reception. They practically completely ignored the fact that I’m an elf. Most of this camp seems pretty laid-back, well, besides the security at the perimeter. They aren’t allowed to be lax. But except for them, the guards here seem pretty bored with life. I wonder if I could trick one of them into helping me escape.
Soon a guard walks up to our group and leads us onto a big brown wooden platform. I watch as he pulls a lever in the corner and it begins lowering us through the ground. We slowly pass by abandoned tunnels. We are going so slow that I could easily just hop off this, and I’m not sure anyone would try and stop me.
Eventually the guard pushes the lever back into its starting position and our platform halts. These halls aren’t abandoned by a long shot, instead there appear to be people waiting for us.
“Everybody off!” The guard calls. “Come on you slowpokes! Pick up your feet!” He shoos us off the platform and into the tunnel with the other Dwarves. Then he pulls the lever backwards, and the platform rises out of sight. We are stuck down here. Once the guard leaves, the Dwarves who were waiting for us start to call out to us.
“Everyone for Dwozzik over here!”
“All Krimmens come this way!”
“All Ya’ll who are assigned to Bakken c’mere!”
“Anyone for Mantakar!? Anyone for Mantakar!?”
I make my way over to the Dwarf calling for people assigned to Bakken. I notice a couple Dwarves going there as well, and make note of their faces as they join the small but growing group surrounding the Dwarf who called for us.
“Any last Dwarves for Bakken?” He shouts out. I glance around outside our group and see one Dwarf still standing confusedly in the center. His head whips around as he hears the last call, and he tries to hurry in our direction. Unfortunately for him another group of Dwarves passes right in front of us at that moment and he can’t make his way through them.
The Dwarf who gathered us doesn’t seem to notice him and says, “No? Well then, let’s get going!” I hesitate, wondering if I should speak up. Would it be seen as good behavior or bad? Would I be helping the Dwarf or hurting him by doing this? Do I really need him in debt to me? Is it worth it? Our leader starts moving the group, but tossing aside my fears, I call out.
“I think there is one more! He started making his way to us when you gave your last call, but he couldn’t get through another group, Sir!”
“Who said that?” Our leader says, turning around and looking at us. I feel my ears heat up as the Dwarves in our small group all point at me. I slowly raise my hand.
“Me, Sir.” I say.
“No need to address me as Sir, I’m just a slave like you, my name’s Lokard.” The Dwarf says waving a hand. “Good work. Thanks for telling me about the lagger, if you hadn’t both the idiot and I would be in trouble. We don’t leave Dwarves behind here, and I suppose that counts for elves too, although you’re the first I’ve seen down here.” I feel the other Dwarves’ glares on my back. Even though I got praised for it, I am still not sure I should have stuck my neck out for that Dwarf. Apparently it has alienated me.
As the lagger rushes to join us before we leave, I realize I recognise his face, and my belief that I really shouldn’t have helped him expands profoundly. I just saved someone who I know was part of a plot to kill me. Golik quickly joins our group, and we begin to make our way out of the arrival place.
We travel through dark caverns and over strange abandoned tracks. Occasionally I notice another platform moving deeper down into the mine or I hear a loud bang as something explodes. Much more common though is the rhythmic thumping of hammer and chisel on rock, echoing through the depths. These tunnels seem to be abandoned mining areas. I can see the blast marks on the walls as we pass through them.
Eventually we reach a large cavern, and we finally split up from the group ahead of us as they go off to one side, and we go straight into the center. The cavern is different from the other ones we have passed through because it is much bigger. It also looks like it could have been natural. When I look up, I can’t see the ceiling, but I can see the tips of stalactites hanging down. Another thing that is unique about this cavern is that it is filled with buildings, ramshackle huts made of stone, most standing on their own, but some carved into the walls. They are large and rectangular, and each one has a burning torch outside the only door to the inside. I suppose this will be where we are staying.
Lokard halts at one of the nearby buildings and calls out. “Bakken! The newbies are ‘ere! One for each Dwarf we lost!”
From inside the building a gruff voice replies, “Be right there! Just needed to finish briefing the others!” A couple of murmurs from inside the cabin ensue, and then out comes another pack of Dwarves. Their group is smaller than ours, numbering only six to our ten. At their head is a Dwarf who looks a might bit better than all the prisoners I’ve seen so far. He seems to be a healthy weight, and I’d guess in his prime. His clothes are slightly less worn, and are patched in places instead of being full of holes. He also looks like he is in charge.
My suspicions are confirmed when the Dwarf introduces himself.
“My name is Bakken, I’m your Supervisor. I’ll be assigning you duties, and you all will need to complete them accurately and punctually. If you don’t work, you don’t eat. It’s that simple. Lokard is my second in command, you lot answer to him like you do to me. You newbies will each be assigned to an oldie to help you get to know the works. I don’t want anyone dying on me because they made a stupid mistake. Yes, six to nine doesn’t allow for everyone to get an oldie to themselves, so some of you will be in pairs. Before you ask, I don’t take on newbies, too much hassle and too many administration duties to bother. Any questions?” Golik raises his hand, “Yes?”
“So how do things actually work here? The guards didn’t give a very thorough explanation.”
“You work hard, you get to eat, you hope someone takes notice of you so you can move up the ranks, you hope you don’t die. Anything else?” Bakken raises an eyebrow, not expecting an answer. Golik seems to misread his cues and continues into another question.
“Um yeah, what happened to the people we’re taking the place of?”
“They weren’t lucky on the last one. They died. Anything else?”
Golik gulps and, looking rather nervous, asks, “Average life expectancy?”
“Do you really want to know, kid?” Bakken cuts in. Golik doesn’t answer. “Okay, anyone else besides this idiot want to speak up?”
One of the other new Dwarves raises a hand. Then without waiting to be called on he says “Why is he here? Isn’t he an Elf?” He points at me.
“I don’t know,” Bakken says. “Why don’t you ask him? He can probably answer you better than I can.”
“Well why are you here, Elf?” The Dwarf says, looking disgusted that he even has to talk to me. The other Dwarfs look at me curiously, probably wondering the same thing. Golik looks up curiously, as if just now noticing I’m here. I try to smile, but it feels more like a grimace. I knew I wouldn’t stay unnoticed, but I wish everyone would stop pointing me out. It is rather unhelpful, since I’m trying to stay under the radar.
“I do have a name, It’s Faladel. I was captured, and stuck in prison for twenty-two years, and now I’m here. I don’t really understand it either.” I say, trying to tone down interest, make it seem like I’m nothing special. Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to work. Most of the Dwarves are still looking at me curiously, as if they expect more, and Golik is staring at me, a slightly confused look on his face.
The Dwarf who originally asked the question laughs and says “So they’re sending elf babies to battle then?” I just stare at him in response, and sigh softly as most of the group laughs along with him. Let them think what they will, they won’t believe I’m over a hundred anyway. Bakken quickly shuts them up though, for which I’m grateful.
“Now, Lockard here tells me you saved us from a lot of hassle, er… Faladel was it?” I nod and he continues. “Good work with that. Vol, Enit, Derik, Faulk, Wicket, any of you want to show him the ropes?” He says turning to the Dwarves who came out of the hut with him, “He might be an elf, but he seems to have a keen eye and be willing to speak up when the situation calls for it. Course he might just be talkative.” Bakken finishes smiling cheerily.
“I’ll take him.” One of the Dwarves says. I study him, his hair is a matted black, badly in need of a comb. His beard is rather stringy, like it just can’t grow properly. There are a couple of holes in his pants, mainly around the knees. He wears a tattered dark brown coat that is stained in places and looks like it’s nearly as old as he is. His eyes are a soft green which surprises me. I’ve never seen Dwarven eyes like that before.
“Excellent! Thank you Vol.” Bakken says, making a note on a clipboard he must have produced from a pocket when I wasn’t looking. “Anyone else want to take someone in particular before I start assigning you newbies at random?”
A couple other Dwarves point out someone, Golik is chosen by Lockard, and the rest are divided up randomly. Vol doesn’t get any other ‘newbies’ as they call us. Bakken quickly finishes his division and says, “Now you all can get to it, I need to go and make a report to Thravic.”
“Good luck!” Lokard calls to him as he leaves.
“Thanks! let’s hope I don’t need it.” Bakken shouts back. Then he walks off into the shadows chuckling.
We split into small groups, newbies mixed with oldies. Vol says to me in a lowered surprisingly smooth voice. “So Faladel, any questions that you don’t feel comfortable asking in front of the group?”
“Um yeah.” I say, trying to collect my thoughts. “So do we ever get to go above ground?”
“Not unless you are a supervisor or an overseer. Supervisors only get to go up to report, overseers can actually sleep up there.”
“So where do the supervisors sleep?” I ask, trying to string out the conversation. What information will be the most useful?
“They’ve got their own little cabin. It’s the one in the center.” Vol motions to one of the cabins behind me. I’m not sure which one exactly, they all look the same.
“What happens if we get lost or injured down here?” I say.
“You die. So much for ‘never leave a Dwarf behind’ am I right?” Vol grins at me, I think it is supposed to be a joke, so I smile back.
“What about disease? Are there any sort of medical supplies at all? Clean bandages or something?” I hear my voice say. My brain though is rushing in other directions entirely. How can I phrase my poking around for sensitive information as hapless newbie bumbling? My brain fogs out Vol’s answer until two words flash through, like a lighthouse light cutting through a storm.
“I’m sorry, could you repeat that?” I ask. “You have a black market here?”
“Doesn’t everywhere have something of the sort?” Vol asks nonchalantly. “Yes, as I was saying, you can’t get any medical supplies, except from the black market. Of course, if you want in on the black market, you need something valuable and a dealer. So many Dwarves die out here because they don’t have allies or anything useful. I suppose you’re the same, after being in prison for twenty years.” Vol’s eyes cut to me curiously, hunting for more information.
“No, nothing yet.” I say, storing the information about the black market away for later use.
“Well, if you do come across anything…” Vol trails off quietly.
“What happened to all the people who we’re replacing?” I ask, trying to change the subject.
“Cave-in, not too long ago, quite a few people lost friends that day. Our group lost nearly two thirds of our roster.”
“I’m sorry for your loss.” I say politely.
“Yeah right, you’re an Elf. We’re technically at war, you probably secretly rejoice whenever one of us dies.”
I’m not quite sure what to say to that. My first thought is to vigorously protest. I mean, I don’t. But it is true that I don’t really mourn either. During my twenty years in captivity, I have learned that not all Dwarves are the same. They each have stories, and each one is an individual, not a collective mass like I once thought of them as. Now I know specific Dwarves, and although I’m not sure I would mourn for them, I certainly don’t relish their deaths. So eventually, far too late probably, I simply say quietly. “No, I don’t.” I’m not even sure if Vol hears me, but I hope he does.
“So I’m supposed to show you the works right? Follow me.” Vol orders, a short while later.
He leads me around the caverns and points out important areas to me. The supply areas, kitchen, storage areas — “one of the few places you’ll ever see the guards underground” and the main mining areas. He points out the places where I can find maps chiseled into the walls, and explains to me what I’m going to be doing for the next few days.
“All of our newbies,” He tells me, “are going to be running messages over the mine to help you memorize the quickest routes to and fro. Storage will be able to provide you with rudimentary shoes because lots of areas are slippery, you probably don’t need that though.” He glances at my boots, although they’re old they’re sturdy and have held up rather well. “You’ll want to keep an eye on those, thievery is rife here. Believe it or not, message running is one of the more popular jobs, probably because it doesn’t have as high a fatality rate as the others. The only downside is that it’s tiring and hot. Bakken was able to sign our group of newbies up for it first. He always does his best to take care of us, unlike some of the other supervisors I could mention. My advice, try your best not to stick out too much while doing the rounds. If you offend someone higher up than you, you could get stuck on cart duty. Nobody on cart duty lasts very long. Constant stress, less food, not to mention dangerous work- I mean you’re literally carting around explosives -quickly beats all the life out of them.”
We travel around for a bit more, and then head back to the ‘dens’ as Vol calls them. All the other groups are just getting back as well, and Vol leads us to our group’s hut. I go inside and take my first look around. It is rather stingy. There are eight two-tiered bunk beds with straw mattresses, four on each side. No room for personal possessions, but much better than sleeping on the ground, and better than the prison too. The air is stale and warm from all the explosions going on beneath us, but each ‘bed’ has a thin blanket, which I much appreciate.
I can’t go to sleep though, the events of the day keep playing through my head. I feel restless. If I thought I could get away with it I would probably go for a walk to help me work through everything. There is just so much to think about. Vol’s comments spiral through my brain. The accusation-”secretly rejoice” mingles with “black market” and “my advice…not to stick out” they mingle and swirl together joining the whirlpool of other events. The one guard-”It’s probably above our pay grade…Room inspection at 3 am.” Bakken explaining everything, Golik looking confused, the maps on the stone cavern walls, the heavily guarded walls above ground. Eventually the lights outside the door go dark, and the last image I remember before falling asleep is Vol’s green eyes, hunting for more information.