The elevator was crowded that morning. They had loaded an extra crew of loaders for the new tunnels that were being mined.
E’Schat leaned into the wall to make space for others and was in turn leaned into as more bigguns pushed into the wooden box. He had learned to use the slow descent into the stone to center himself.
He turned inward and as his body was compressed into the wall. He felt small again, young, in the embrace of his herd, his Sisters. The gears creaked above and the elevator started to go deep into the mountain.
He was at the edge of the fire. The Sisters were there, clapping their hands in a sharp rhythm, chanting wordless songs. He could see Fa’teem there, dressed in red garments dyed from the ground cherries that E’Schat would gorge himself on in the crisp fall evenings.
Such an evening it was tonight, with the smells of the leaves mixing with the smoke of the sentinel wood that burned softly in the center of the Sisters. E’Schat looked at the dancers assembled, throwing their bodies around the pyre, but for some reason his eye kept being drawn to Fa’teem, who danced as if she were the Flames of Night herself.
Fa’teem undulated and threw her arms up, which unfurled long sleeves that moved as fire longing for the branches that hung above them. The sleeves traced her movement around the circle, which moved quicker and quicker around the timber’s sorrow as it cried out its crackling tears. They began to move with reckless abandon, their grace belied only by the fabric that stayed just out of reach of the licking flames.
As the dance got faster, E’Schat could feel something growing within him. He felt powerful watching the dancers, as if he too was made of the fire that they emulated, growing stronger as they were consumed in their leaping and swaying. He could feel the spirits beyond the veil of the forest seeping into the gathering, drawing closer to admire as he did.
Mid stride, Fa’teem looked stricken and began to convulse. The other dancers beside her moved to catch her as she entered the realm of the umbra, that shaded world of the spirits that was just below the façade of the earth. She began to speak in strange tongues and the Sisters stopped their chanting to listen.
The jolt of elevator as it reached the bottom of the shaft jerked E’Schat from the memories. E’Schat sat firmly at the edge of his mind. He stared into a vortex of draining feelings as he tried to remember what it was that she had said that night.
He had not meant to think of Fatima. Her absence was pronounced in the camp and he wanted them closer, today especially. What is she doing now? he wondered.
It was not to be answered as the herd of workers shuffled out into the dimly lit tunnel, hewn from solid salt.
The bigguns all began their way through the labyrinthine tunnels, lit by oil lamps whose smoke stained the ceiling black. The sounds of picks and carts echoed through the chamber. E’Schat gripped his mallet and chisel and followed the crew to the main quarry.
The quarry was a hive of activity, the many moving parts kept well oiled by the guards with their whips and crops to fix the inefficiencies of the labor machine. There were new faces down here today. A woman E’Schat had never seen before with a cruel smile nodded her head at the man with a snaggletooth standing next to her. She eyeballed E’Schat and her smile grew bigger. He paid her no mind and took his place along the wall.
He positioned his chisel and with a measured blow of his mallet began to carve out a solid block as large a full-grown bear. The salt of the earth was like butter to his blade and he worked quickly. With four quick strikes, moving up the wall, he had a seam along the corner he was chiseling. While others used the pickaxes, repaired daily by the gnomish smiths, E’Schat’s ancestral tools were more than adequate to outpace his fellow topside workers. The only ones faster and more efficient were the little folk that labored tirelessly, carving out the stone like scooping cream from a bowl of milk.
The kobolds were strange folk and E’Schat did not truly understand them. Short of stature and ugly of face, the creatures were kind enough. There were stories whispered among the workers though not to cross them. Their strength was in their numbers and cunning. Their mischievous belligerence was renowned and the stories always ended in cruel fates for those who did not heed the warnings. Even the guards largely left them alone. While the labor and the dehydration was enough to weaken and kill even the most hardy of the bigguns, the kobolds smiled and whistled. They were of the earth and E’Schat was not sure if they were truly prisoners here or if the humans had simply found them and exploited the work they were already doing.
While they were hard to impress, E’Schat’s tools and ability to work free large blocks with clean lines had drawn him a small following of faithful fans. As they scurried by, he would feel gentle slaps along his legs, reminders that they saw him and saw the work that he did. He had learned a few of them by name and these few were who E’Schat was relying on to bring his message to all.
The work was hard and the heat had nowhere to travel. Instead of sweating though, the stone seemed to suck the very moisture from his fur. Every blow of the mallet would bring another shower of dust that would cling to the follicles and try to sneak into his eyes. He hard carved and carted four blocks by the time the first whistle rang for break. A guard with a water bucket walked the quarry as the folk, big and small, took respite from the work. Each was given a ladle which was drank both slowly enough to enjoy yet quickly enough that the guard would not jerk it away half drained. The thirst was never quenched but it was enough to be able to breathe deeply again for a few minutes.
E’Schat would use these small breaks to connect with the kobolds that knew him or at least knew of him. Beoub was chief among these that he knew and seemed to be a true believer in E’Schat’s cause. E’Schat would tell him of the world above and while other kobolds would shake their heads in disbelief, Beoub’s eyes would shine and glaze as he imagined the forests and moonlight. Stories of the daytime and sun however would always draw fearful expressions and E’Schat had learned not to speak of the bright light.
Today was no different and as the bucket made its way around, E’Schat found Beoub with a few other kobolds that seemed to stick together. Beoub called them his clutchmates but E’Schat had little idea what the distinction meant to the kobold culture. Today though, it was incumbent that he reached them all.
“Beoub. It is good to see you.”
“Ah, Great Carver Skaat! Tell me of moon and sky again!”
E’Schat did not mind when the kobolds drew his name out. It was not with the malice that the guards would speak with and so he let it pass.
“I would rather show you. Tell me, Beoub, would you like to see the moon?”
“Me? See moon?”
At this, the other kobolds in the group perked up their ears and looked askance at the large, one-horned minotaur.
“Yes. And you all can come too.”
“What is moon?” asked one of the kobolds.
“It is the Mother that protects us all in the darkness. She glows with warmth when she is full and with mystery when she is hidden but she always watches over us.”
“She protect us? Even down here?” asked another.
“Down here, we protect each other. If you help me, I will protect you and bring you to see the moon,” answered E’Schat
“How we help? You tell Beoub and me help!”
“I will need the help of you all. Spread the word but do not tell the guards. When we break for lunch, I will tell you more about the night and how you can meet Mother Moon.”
The guard with the bucket was drawing closer and E’Schat lifted a finger to his lips in a sign for silence. Beoub and the other nodded, wide-eyed and silent. They each drank from the ladle and smiled at E’Schat.
The guard today was snaggletooth and when E’Schat drank, the guard jarred the ladle, spilling most of the water to the ground.
“Oops,” said the guard, smiling.
E’Schat knew better to talk back and was not surprised when the ladle was not replenished to offer more. He drank what was left and his thirst remained.
The break ended quickly and E’Schat went back to cutting the large stones free from the earth.
As the break ended, E’Schat could not push the thirst from his head. The salt sucked the moisture from his breath, and he could feel the dust filling his throat and lungs. He thought instead to the stream he would reflect by and put his mind elsewhere.
He continued to cut blocks. The carts would come by when a stone was ready to be dropped. Others would chunk out smaller pieces but E’Schat’s blocks were substantial and he would call the cart so he could slice it out and have it fall into the basin.
The orc that was pushing the cart gave E’Schat a nod. They would switch after lunch and E’Schat would always try to make his cart partner’s job as easy as possible.
He conserved his strength and only cut three blocks before lunch. His parched throat started wheezing a bit as he worked.
Lunch started and the cadre of workers moved towards the mess hall. The mess was a large room cut from the stone of the mountain. Massive salt columns cut from the rock itself held up the ceiling in the mammoth room. Near the walls were an engaged colonnade with enthroned statues seated in alcoves, all cut directly into the salt. They were royal figures, wreathed in laurels and crowns. The room was intriguing to E’Schat and he had asked Timnuth about it.
The mine was old and early miners were artisans. They built the statues as reminders of the lords who they served, who granted them an opportunity to work upon the land. As the lustrums passed, a statue would be carved to commemorate each new regent of the land. There were ten statues in total and each was carved to be more exquisite than the next, gaining conceit and drama in the simple poses and changing styles of the ages. The face of the fourth statue had been chiseled away in jagged lines that scarred the remaining head.
The room now served as a mess hall for the workers which was a short but needed break. They had built tables there and would serve a thin soup that was mostly broth. E’Schat knew that those who worked in the kitchen were the most well fed. He believed that the vegetables and meat that was to end up in the soup was pilfered by the many hands that touched the cooking process until the greasy broth in front of him was all that was left. Even so, he drank greedily of it. He slowed eventually, leaving some in his bowl even, before standing and wandering to the back corner of the large room.
E’Schat nodded at other workers he knew from the sleeping barracks. They were anxious; E’Schat could read in their eyes. He needed to make sure his plan was in motion and that he could trust the kobolds to do their part. He sought out Beoub.
Beoub was at a table of kobolds near the edge of the room. The work groups took mealtime together, but many were still segregated. The sleeping arrangements being divided as they were, many of the topside sleepers would eat together and many of the subterranean dwellers spoke in languages that were unique to their speakers. While the kobolds could speak in simple sentences when speaking with others, they were largely silent when they were all together at meals, though very expressive. There was much pointing and nodding that E’Schat could gather but hardly understand.
When E’Schat walked up, Beoub noticed him and pointed excitedly. The rest of the kobolds looked up at him in unison. Beoub jumped up on his chair and bobbed excitedly.
“Ah, Great Carver! We just talking about moon! Excited to see!” Beoub danced upon his chair and the rest of the kobolds similarly wiggled in their chairs excitedly.
“Then you will join me?”
“We want meet Mother Moon!’ Beoub pointed up and the kobolds gathered wiggled again.
“If you wish to meet Mother Moon, then listen closely to my plan for. If you follow it exactly, we will meet again on the surface tonight under her protective cloak.”
“And you protect us too?”
“I am the written story and you are part of my journey should you choose to walk with me. All that walk with me and join the herd, gain my protection and the protection of the herd,” E’Schat spoke the words into existence and he knew them to be true.
Beoub looked at him with big eyes. He could see that he had made a believer of the kobold and trusted this spark of a moment to push his plan to fruition. Others gathered looked similarly, nodding and pointing at the bull.
“What is plan?” one of them asked, the same from before who asked of the moon.
“What is your name, friend?” the salt-covered bull asked.
“Tait,” replied Tait.
“Then Tait, and Beoub, and all gathered here: I have digging to ask of you. I know it is more work but should you dig where I ask, there will be no more need to toil down here under the eyes of the guards.”
“We will dig. Meet Mother Moon.” Beoub nodded with a stern look on his face.
“Then listen closely and be ready to tell all kobolds that wish to leave this place. My protection as shepherd extends to them as well.”
E’Schat gathered a small piece of salt from the ground with his chisel and used to it to draw lines on the table. He could easily obscure it with what remained of his broth.
With some simple X’s, E’Schat identified the columns within the quarry that would need to be eliminated to cause the effect that he had measured for. E’Schat had been counting his paces on previous visits to the mine and with the information gathered, planned to cause a strategic cave in. Looking at the wide eyes around him that focused on his map and explanation, he had found his crew.
They all exchanged nods and hand touches when E’Schat was done and E’Schat was invited to touch hands with his neighbors. He did so slowly but added in a nod to them as he saw others doing.
“Thank you, Great Carver Skaat! We see you tonight under cloak of Mother Moon! Excited to keep bond with you,” the last sentence was said with the solemn nod that was shared between them moments earlier.
E’Schat thanked them and wiped away the drawing with a hand moistened from his bowl.
With lunch over, E’Schat went to the cart area and gathered a cart. It was his turn to push the massive oaken box, moored with iron fittings and atop its rolling casters, about the mine to collect the pieces of salt until eventually depositing it full in one of the elevators to be taken to the surface.
Walking the extent of the mine meant that he saw all the workers. From the small pile that had built up since the last cart’s departure, the slaves that cut salt would throw their chunks into the carts as they passed. He could see the kobolds and as he passed them, they would nod. E’Schat could tell they were meek but hardened creatures and though he did not understand their strange culture, he could tell that he had gained an ally.
E’Schat would complete seven loops before the day was over, the cart slowly growing heavier on each loop. One could not stop and take a break for the guards would punish any cart pusher without their hands on a cart.
When the heavy carts finally reached capacity, they would be brought to the elevator. The elevator was a cleverly designed conveyor that utilized multiple platforms that ran constantly, powered by four pairs of horses yoked to a great wheel at the surface. It would stop every half turn of the wheel which would also be when the loading areas aligned with the platforms again. E’Schat could see the work of the gnomes there in the gearwork and efficiency of design. He had hoped to curry their favor too but they were very insular and did work in a separate area of the mine. They were usually dispatched if there were maintenance issues and would also handle the outfitting of workers with picks and other tools from a central hub. Occasionally, they were brought in to blast a section of wall, which E’Schat assumed was done through some sort of wizardry and exactly the skill that would have been useful to E’Schat’s plan.
E’Schat was about full and started heading up the path that would take him toward the elevator. It was his fifth run of the day and his first after the water break. Once again, it had not been much of a break for E’Schat. This time, it was Cruel Smile but she said nothing. Instead of spilling E’Schat’s water, she simply did not offer him any. As she moved past him, her eyes smiled too, and they said enough.
He could feel his body starting to ache from the lack of water. He had at least two more runs left and he would not let these guards break him. He gathered his strength and pushed the cart with his face down, heaving up the slight ramp to the elevator. He felt ameliorated for a moment as the weight of the cart was transferred to the elevator. He secured it with the hooked straps that were bolted to the platform, one on each corner, tightened snug.
He turned tiredly to retrieve a new cart from the caddy when he noticed that he was not alone. Snaggletooth and Cruel Smile where there behind him. Snaggletooth had a spear, Cruel Smile a sword.
“Well, well, well, what have we here? A cart pusher with no cart? A lazy bull clearly shirking their responsibility. Whatever shall we do with it?” said Snaggletooth.
They both moved slowly but efficiently to position themselves with their weapons so that E’Schat was pinned near the elevator shafts. E’Schat’s blood began to boil.
“They call this one Skat. Ole Roddy was telling us ‘bout it. Said it leaves a stink like a pile of shit that a boot couldn’t scrape off.”
“Well if a boot can’t do the trick, lucky we brought these shears,” snickered Snaggletooth, setting up to charge the bull and push it into the dispassionate machinery that continued churning behind the bull.
E’Schat made no move. He saw the guards and the weapons brandishing in the torchlight of the salt mines. His eyes caught the same flickering and the green of his eyes flashed. As the guards moved, he could see the ghosts of possible futures emanating from them. He watched his death numerous times and tried to process the images.
“What do you say, Skat? Think we can scrape the stink off you?” said Cruel Smile.
Snaggletooth thrusted forward with his spear as he lunged into the bull. E’Schat closed his eyes. He could still see the after images of the future before him. With a graceful turn, he pivoted on his back hoof, letting the spear cross his chest close enough to touch the fur. E’Schat grabbed the hand holding the spear closest him and pulled the spear forward. With his other hand, he grabbed the off-balance guard by the scruff of his uniform.
“Do you call my name?” E’Schat opened his eyes to look at Snaggletooth. “In my language, it means ‘the end.’”
E'Schat pulled the guard by the collar, throwing him beneath a receding platform amongst the gears and chains. A sickening crunch accompanied the clattering of steel on stone as the spear fell to the ground, impotent.
The crouching bull uncoiled back to face Cruel Smile, though he remained crouched. "Fate is like a leash. You can walk along as it moves. Or, you can be dragged by it to your destiny.”
Incensed, the sword bearing guard approached carelessly, swinging the sword high and over her shoulder to come down with a mighty blow.
“I see you wish to walk with fate. Do not let me slow your stride!”
With rising energy, E'Schat clutched the dropped spear and leveraged all his force upward with it. He caught the charging guard between her legs and, pulling up and over himself, catapulted the guard behind him. Her sword came down, catching E’Schat in the shoulder as she flew into the air. Her cruel smile crashed into the edge of a descending platform. As her body continued over her head, her neck snapped loudly enough to be heard over the machinery. The sword fell from her hand and clattered on the wood. She landed with a final thud, contorted upon the platform as it continued its journey to the lower apex of the shaft. As it reached that point and slid over, pulled along by the guides, the body and sword were pushed off into the gears below.
E’Schat paused at the edge of the shaft for a moment, then threw the spear down the shaft behind her. He was bleeding from a wound in his shoulder. If he stayed here longer, some other guard or worker was bound to come along. He hoped that the guards had taken pains to keep their presence a secret. If he did not bind his wound, he would risk alerting others to his participation in their demise.
E'Schat ran his hand along the corner of the wall and scooped up some loose debris. He rubbed the Rick salt into his wounds to help staunch the bleeding. The searing pain that lanced through his shoulder was a welcome reminder of his vitality in the face of the dead attackers.
He ripped his garment and fashioned a bandage as the sisters had shown him to do. The healing arts were largely about preparation sister Hyacinth would say.
He applied a roll and then wrapped his shoulder up, dressing the wound the best he could. He adjusted his tunic to cloak the dressing and went to find a cart. If he could finish the day without arousing suspicion, he might be able to see the moon again and make good on his promises to the kobolds.
The cart mechanism was slow. E'Schat could hear the grinding of gears as the systems were fighting the burden of the obstructions. Before long though, a cart reached the platform level and, tipped enough to roll, jostled into the corral. He took the cart and began to push along his route again.
Halfway through the route, the pain in his shoulder turned into a throbbing ache. Fighting through the hunger, thirst, and now this pain was taking a toll on the young bull. By the time he reached his pushing partner, he was slumping.
“Hey, E’Schat, you doing alright?” the orc asked.
“The guards . . . ambushed me. Just need to . . . make it out of the mines.” He was losing his breath and it was difficult to speak. “One more circuit. I can do it.”
The orc looked pensive. Much was riding on this bulls plan and relation with the elves. “Are you sure?”
“Just one last loop. I can do it.”
With that, he set off again to the next collection point. The orc paused in his work long enough to watch the receding form.
As he dropped off the cart, he returned to the elevator, he could hear the gears churning as if something was stuck. A guard was there and was summoning gnomes to come look at the machine. He remained inconspicuous as he pushed the cart onto its landing to rise to the surface.
As he started his last loop, E’Schat started to feel dizzy. He braced himself on his cart and waited for the moment to pass. Just one more step. And then another. If he could just keep pushing, he could make it to the surface.
He stumbled and fell to a knee. Just as a guard was making ready to whip the bull for dawdling the bells rang signaling the end of the shift. The whip still fell, as if to serve as a final reminder of his time here.
He joined the slow moving group of workers to head to the worker’s elevator.