The Price of Caring

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Fantasy  |  House: Booksie Classic
A short fantasy story about two slaves and their endeavours to find someone they care about.

Submitted: June 02, 2013

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Submitted: June 02, 2013




Chapter 1


The sound of picks striking rock rang throughout the tunnel, accompanied by the grunts of exertion from the slaves. The men were stripped to the waist, their upper bodies streaked with sweat, dirt and dust. Suddenly, the crack of a whip split the air, closely followed by the agonised screams of a slave worker. The whip cracked again and the other slaves close by turned to see an older slave kneeling, arms raised above his head, trying to ward off the blows. A slave master stood before him, whip raised to deliver another blow.

Wincing in sympathy as the slave master continued to rain blows down on the unfortunate slave, Dale turned back to his section of the rough-hewn tunnel. With a smoothness born of long practise, he swung his pick into the rock wall in front of him. Chipping away at the rock face, Dale attempted to ignore the agonised screams from the slave, as well as the sound of the whip striking the slave.

After what seemed an age, the cries of the slave began to weaken until, eventually, they ceased altogether. The sounds of the slave masters whip striking flesh kept on for a little while, before stopping as well.

Glancing behind him, Dale saw the slave master moving away, back onto his patrol route. The slave, or what remained of him, was left on the ground. The quick glimpse of the slave cause Dale to retch as he hurriedly turned back to his work.

What had once been an unhealthy slave, was now just a flayed, vaguely man-shaped hunk of meat, oozing blood and gore onto the rocky ground. There was gore splattered around the immediate area from the slave masters whip.

Facing his assigned part of the wall, Dale shook his head in an attempt to clear the image of the slaves body from his mind. The sight of the slaves lifeless face, still constricted into a grimace of agony, wouldn't leave him though.

Striking the rock wall with his pick, Dale attempted to lose himself in manual labor. The image of the dead slaves face wouldn't leave his mind. Accompanied as it was by a feeling of intense guilt, Dale's mind was in turmoil.

Dale knew why he was feeling guilty. The only reason the other slave had been so brutally punished, was because Dale had stumbled into him, causing him in turn to fall into a slave master.

As his pick continued to crash into the rock wall, chipping away the debris, Dale attempted to push his guilt down. Dale had been lucky that the slave master hadn't noticed him as well. With a shiver from how close he had come to suffering the same brutal end, Dale counted himself lucky.

With a silent prayer for forgiveness, Dale tried to turn his attention to the task at hand. He knew that there was nothing he could do to help the poor slave. Dale spent the rest of the working day with his head down and tried to avoid any chance of being noticed by any slave masters.


Chapter 2


Hours later, at the end working day, Dale trudged back to the central area for the slaves. This central area was where the slaves slept and ate. Brushing a strand of dark, dirt covered hair out of his eyes, Dale peered around. Spying a head of raggedly cut, flame red hair on the other side of the chamber, he picked his way through the mass of dirt and sweat covered people. His progressed was slowed as more and more slaves moved into the common area.

After picking his through the growing crowd, Dale stopped next to the red-haired youth, who was kneeling next to an old slave lying on a pallet, his wrinkled face drawn tight with pain.

Looking down at him, Dale asked "Whatcha doing down there Ralf?"

"Lym here took a nasty fall today and he's hurt his back. I'm trying to help him get comfortable," Ralf replied, without looking up.

Dale understood straight away. If Lym couldn't move in the morning, the slave-masters wouldn't be merciful. Slaves who couldn't work the mines were useless and down here, that meant a quick death. As poor an existence as it was, life in the mines was preferable, for most, to death, especially the way the slave-masters dealt it out.

After a few more minutes helping Lym get settled and as comfortable as possible, Ralf rose to his feet. "Try not to move, Lym. Me and Dale are gonna go get some food, then we'll be right back."

Lym's only response was a quick jerk of the head and a soft moan. The two youths moved away and started towards the line for food. Neither said anything as they collected their gruel and water allotment, under the hostile gaze of the pair of slave-masters tasked with keeping the line moving and under control. The supervision was not particularly needed; if anyone tried to steal extra food, he would be ripped apart by his fellow slaves. The mines didn't breed much trust or companionship between people and it didn't take much for violence to erupt.

Once they had collected their meal, Dale and Ralf made their way back towards where they had left Lym. They kept silent as they walked, keeping their eyes down and not interacting with anyone. But when they got back to where they had left Lym, he was nowhere to be seen.

"Where the bloody hell has he gotten to?" exclaimed Ralf.

Not bothering to give an answer he didn't have, Dale quickly turned and scanned the immediate area. Aside from other slaves settling down to eat or sleep and a few slave-masters keeping watch, there was no sign of Lym.

Turning back, he found Ralf doing exactly the same thing. About to  ask if Ralf had see something he'd missed, Dale noticed an unfamiliar slave staring at him. Upon seeing that Dale had noticed the scrutiny, the man casually turned and walked away.

"You know that guy, Ralf?" asked Dale, as he watched the man walk off.

Peering at the man Dale had indicated, Ralf shook his head. " Nah mate. Why?".

"He was watching us..." Dale trailed off. Shaking his head he said, "I dunno, maybe I'm just creeped out. Seen any sign of Lym?"

"Nothing, not a trace. Maybe... maybe we should ask someone if they saw anything," said Ralf nervously.

Dale could understand the nervousness in Ralf's voice. The prevalent attitude of the slaves in the mine was every man for themselves and it wasn't uncommon for violence to erupt for insignificant reasons. Interaction between slaves was not common; indeed, the relationship between Lym, Ralf and Dale was a very uncommon one.

The two boys had been taken under the protection of Lym shortly after they arrived, when they were twelve, and in the seven or so years since the three had become somewhat of a family. Lym had taught the boys, as their first lessons in slave life, to keep to themselves and to stay unnoticed. It had been drilled into them over and over again by Lym, until it was an automatic reaction to avoid any kind of interaction with other slaves.

Knowing it may be their only chance of finding out if Lym had been taken away by someone, did nothing to lessen Dale's unease. He knew it might be the only way to find out where Lym was so he looked Ralf in the eye.

"Let's do it."


Chapter 3


Dale looked around the immediate area, trying to decide who to approach first. He and Ralf had spent the last ten minutes coming up with a plan. Maybe they were being over-cautious, but caution had been drilled into the pair of them by Lym. They would probably have kept revising their plan, however, soon the slave masters would be moving through the cavern, ensuring the slaves weren't doing anything untoward.

The plan was for Ralf to approach the other slaves who were usually making their beds near Lym and the boys. He would engage them and ask if they had what had happened to Lym, keeping the conversation as short and to the point as possible.

"Alright Ralf, you ready?" asked Dale.

All he got in reply was a nervous jerk of the head, that Dale took to be an affirmative nod. Without a further word, he gave Ralf a push towards the first slave they had decided to speak with. With a stumble and a dirty look at Dale, Ralf walked towards the man.

Dale watched as Ralf started talking with the slave. They had chosen this slave first because he was roughly the same age. Dale hoped this would help the slave to open up and make it easier for Ralf to interact. Judging from the way both Ralf's and the other slave's posture had relaxed, it seemed to have been a good idea. Soon enough, Ralf turned away from the slave and made his way back to Dale. When Ralf drew close enough, Dale could see a slightly confused expression his face.

"So, did you learn anything?"

"Nope, he didn't see anything, but he said he wasn't paying much attention. It was easier than I expected," replied Ralf.

"What was easier?" asked Dale.

Ralf seemed to think before he said, "Just the whole interaction thing. It seemed easier than it should have. Maybe it's just cause of how Lym is always telling us to not talk to the other slaves."

Dale thought about what Ralf had said as he looked out into the crowd of slaves, trying to decide which one they would approach next. It did seem odd that Lym had spent so much time instilling a deep mistrust of others in the boys, especially when the other slaves were turning out to be easy to interact with.

Spying another slave who seemed to be of an age with himself and Ralf, Dale pointed him out. Ralf agreed, after studying the man for a short while. Once again, Dale watched as Ralf engaged another slave in conversation. This time, Ralf seemed relaxed from the outset and was quickly finished.

"He doesn't know anything either. Let's try another."

Over the next hour, Dale and Ralf spoke to various slaves, some old, some young, and got no information on what had happened to Lym. Eventually, Dale decided they would ask one more person then give up for the night.

"Ralf, you're gonna talk to one more person then, I think we give up for the night."

Ralf replied, "Alright. Who should we ask?"

Glancing around the area, Dale's gaze fell on a slave around their age.

"That's who you are going to ask."

"The blonde guy?" asked Ralf.

"Yep, the blonde guy. Off you go," said Dale.

He watched Ralf walk over to the blonde slave and start talking to him. Dale really hoped that they would finally get some idea of what had happened to Lym. He was starting to get quite worried but he was trying to keep a calm facade for Ralf. He noticed Ralf clapped the slave on the back and start moving back towards him. Dale moved towards him, eager to know what he had found.

As they met, Dale asked, "Did he know anything?"

"Marc, that's that guys name, didn't see what happened to Lym", replied Ralf. "But he did say that, if anyone would know what has happened to Lym, it's someone called Gaic. Apparently, Lym and Gaic know each other."

"Well, that's something at least. Did he tell you where this Gaic fellow might be?"

"He said that Gaic sleeps over near the fountain. Should we go look for him?"

Dale considered how much time they had left before they would need to be back at their sleeping area. "We'll need to be quick if we're gonna be back in time. Maybe we should start again tomorrow?"

"Lym might not have til tomorrow" came Ralf's swift reply.

"True..." mused Dale. "Fine. Let's go, but we need to be quick. You know Lym wouldn't want us to be beaten or killed because of him."

"Yeah I know, Dale," answered Ralf. "I'm just worried".

Dale attempted to make his voice sound upbeat when he said, "Come on, let's go find this Gaic. I'm sure he will know what's happened to Lym". The unlikelihood of this Gaic having good news about Lym, or even knowing what had happened to him, was something that Dale kept to himself.


Chapter 4


The two boys picked their way through the crowd as quickly as was possible, without attracting any unwanted attention. As they approached the fountain, where Marc said that Gaic should be, Dale put out an arm to slow Ralf down. He didn't want to rush blindly into a situation they knew nothing about.

"Did Marc happen to tell you what this guy looked like?" asked Dale.

Ralf threw him a disgusted look and said, "Of course I asked what he looked like. Do you think I'm an idiot?"

"No, I know your stupid," replied Dale with a laugh. "So what is it that I'm looking for?"

"Whatever. This Gaic is apparently Lym's age, white hair and wrinkles."

Dale stopped moving and stared at Ralf in disbelief. "Are you serious? That's all we have to go one. You just described a quarter of the slaves in here."

"I wasn't finished, Dale," said Ralf with a grin. "Gaic has a very large scar running down his face. It goes through one of his eyes, which is white."

"Oh, well that helps. You could have said that first, you know," answered Dale.

Ralf laughed and said, "It was worth the look on your face".

Dale just grunted in reply and started looking for an old slave that matched the description Ralf had just given him. Looking at the number of snowy heads just in the immediate are, Dale wasn't feeling confident of finding Gaic, even with the distinctive scar on his face. Glancing over to the side, he could see his own lack of confidence echoed on Ralf's face.

Turning to Ralf, he started to say, "Maybe we should split-"

"Got him," exclaimed Ralf.

"Where?" asked Dale, spinning around and scanning the area.

Ralf pointed off to their left and said, "Over there. The guy kneeling on the ground."

Dale looked towards where Ralf was indicating and immediately saw Gaic. The scar on his face was puckered and red, slicing down the left side of the face from forehead to jawline, straight through a milky-white eye. He was kneeling next to another slave, speaking quietly to him. Gaic suddenly looked up and straight at the two boys. Dale caught a glimpse of a bright blue eye, narrowed in suspicion, before he turned away, trying to portray an image of innocence.

"He's seen us, Dale. What do we do?" Ralf asked anxiously.

"I think we should just go up and ask him what he knows about Lym," answered Dale.

Ralf swallowed nervously and asked, "Are you sure?"

"No, I'm not sure, but it's the best I can think of," replied Dale.

Turning back to where Gaic had been, Dale took a couple of steps forward before he noticed that Ralf wasn't at his side any longer. Looking back over his shoulder, Dale opened his mouth to tell Ralf to hurry up, but the words died in his mouth. The man they had marked as Gaic, was standing next to Ralf with one of his hands clamped around Ralf's upper arm. With his other hand, Gaic beckoned to Dale to come back to where he and Ralf stood.

Dale walked towards the odd couple and stopped a few metres away. Ralf gave him a nervous grin, but Dale could see the panic and fear in his eyes. Switching his gaze to Gaic, he could see that Gaic was in complete control of the situation.

"Do you have a problem?" asked Dale.

A small smile appeared on Gaic's face and he replied, "Not at all, laddie. I'm just curious as to why you two were asking young Marc about me. Care to explain?"

"Let go of Ralf and we can talk," said Dale.

"No," came the immediate response. "Ralf here is my guarantee that I'll get the my answers."

Dale glanced at Ralf and saw his expression move into full-blown panic. Gritting his teeth, Dale turned back and saw that Gaic knew he was in total control. The boys would do anything Gaic wanted and he knew it. Dale knew his best bet to get both him and Ralf out of this unharmed would be to tell Gaic the truth as quickly as he could.

"Okay, Marc told us to look for you because we are looking for someone else, a slave called Lym. He's... he's important to me and Ralf. He hurt his back today during his shift. When we got back from the food line, he was gone. Lym shouldn't have been able to move by himself, so we thought that someone might have helped move or that maybe the slave-masters picked him up."

Dale's voice broke a little on that last part and he found himself blinking back tears that he hadn't realised he was holding in. During his little speech, Dale had noticed Gaic become more attentive. Now that Dale was finished, he could see that Gaic was looking at the pair of them with more interest, and even some recognition.

"Ah, so you two are Ralf and Dale, the two brats that Lym took under his wing. That would've been, what, six or seven years ago now?"

Dale nodded. "Yeah about that long. So you know Lym?"

"Yeah I know him," said Gaic. "Lym and I go way back. We've been here pretty much the same time."

"So you know where he is then?" asked Ralf, forgetting his panic in a rush of excitement at a connection between Lym and Gaic being established.

"No laddies, I don't have any idea what's happened to Lym," replied Gaic with a shake of him white head. "But I will help you find him. I owe Lym one."

Dale and Ralf looked at each other, and while Ralf looked overjoyed at having someone to help them, Dale couldn't help but think to himself that maybe they needed someone a bit younger to help. As if sensing the direction of Dale's thoughts, Gaic's remaining eye fixed upon Dale, seemingly daring him to voice his opinion. Maybe Gaic will help out after all, amended Dale.


Chapter 5


Gaic surveyed the two lads, the ones Lym had decided all those years ago were the key. Exactly what they were the key to Lym had never fully elaborated on, but Gaic had a shrewd idea of what Lym planned. However, if what Gaic feared had happened to Lym, happened to these two boys, then all off Lym's planning would be in vain. So Gaic made a vow to himself that he would see these boys to safety, even if he had to sacrifice himself to ensure that was the case.

Dale and Ralf were standing a few metres away from Gaic. Their heads were close together and they were talking. Between the stiffness in both boys postures and the grimaces on their faces, Gaic was certain he knew what the conversation was about. He took a few steps closer to the boys and interrupted them.

"Just a guess lads but I'd say you were arguing about which one is going to stick with me."

From the stunned look on both faces, Gaic knew he was correct in his guess. He didn't show any of his pleasure at their surprise on his face though. Gaic reminded himself to not show these lads anything but a dispassionate front, just to keep them on their guard.

Dale was the first to recover, saying, "We have decided. Ralf is going to go back to Marc and see if he's heard anything about Lym. I'm going to go with you and see if you can be trusted."

While Ralf looked shocked at Dales statement, Gaic enjoyed the frankness of it. He hadn't met many slaves with as much backbone as this young one seemed to have. He was starting to see why Lym had chosen this lad, though he was still unsure about the other one, Ralf. However, they both had plenty to show Gaic in order to convince him that they were fit for whatever scheme Lym had concocted.

When Gaic didn't respond to the inflammatory statement straight away, a worried look came into Dale's eye and Ralf nervously said, "I'm very sorry for Dale's rudeness, sir. He didn't mean it. We're just really worried about Lym, is all. Please don't be mad with us."

"It's all right, lad. As long as you don't do it again," added Gaic, fixing Dale with a pointed look from his good eye. Dale had the good grace to blush and drop his eyes.

Gaic continued on, "Now, here's what we're gonna do. Ralf, I want you to go back to Marc and the pair of you need to find another slave called Noel. Marc will know where he is. When you find him, tell him 'Gaic wants to leave'. Got that?"

Ralf nodded but waited until Dale gave him a nod before he moved off to find Marc. Gaic didn't like the hesitation but he let it go without comment. Turning to Dale, he just looked at him, not saying anything. As the silence stretched between them, Gaic could see Dale starting to fidget. Smiling to himself, Gaic decided to put the lad out of his misery.

"Come along lad, we've got some people to see."

Gaic set off and after a second Dale caught up to him, falling into step.  They walked along in silence for a while, Gaic enjoying the discomfort of the younger man beside him. Glancing sideways, he wondered how long before Dale cracked and asked what they were doing. He didn't have to wait long.

"Gonna tell me where we're going?" came the question.

"We're off to see a friend."

There was another period of silence. Gaic knew that Dale was waiting for him to expand on that point, but he wasn't going to give the boy anything, at least nothing without effort.

"What friend?" asked Dale, exasperation clearly evident in his voice.

Keeping his amusement to himself, Gaic replied, "A friend who might be able to help you find Lym. That's all you need to know, boy."

Gaic had a feeling that Dale wouldn't be able to resist the jibe and he wasn't disappointed.

"All I need to know!" exploded Dale. "What the hell does that mean? Tell me who we're going to see or I'll go find Ralf and we'll do this on our own."

They continued to walk for a few more steps then, suddenly, Gaic spun to Dale and grabbed him by the front of his shirt. Pulling the boy up onto his toes, and peering straight into his eyes, Gaic let Dale glimpse some of his very real anger, anger he felt at Lym's disappearance.

"Let's get something straight, boy, I don't need to tell you anything. I don't even need to bring you along with me now. You're here on my sufferance and if I decide I don't want you along, I will get rid of you in a heartbeat. I do not need you to help me. Is that clear?"

Gaic was pleased to see the boy recoil from the anger shown in his face and voice. He released his grip on Dale, giving him a slight shove. As Dale stumbled backwards, Gaic continued on their original path, not looking back to see if the boy was coming after him.

After a few seconds, Gaic heard footsteps hurrying after him. Once again, he smiled to himself. As Dale came up next to him again, Gaic glanced sideways at him. Dale had his eyes forward and his shoulders were stiff with embarrassment.

Without looking at Gaic, Dale said, "I'm sorry how I was acting. I just really want to find Lym."

"I understand, lad" replied Gaic with a sigh. "You lads have gotten me worried about him too. But you need to follow my lead. Okay?"

"All right" agreed Dale.

The two of them hurried onwards towards where Gaic hoped, and feared, they would be able to find some news of Lym.


Chapter 6

Ralf picked his way through the crowd of slaves, wondering what Dale and Gaic were doing and if they had found any sign of Lym. He hoped that they would find something. In the meantime, Ralf reminded himself, he needed to concentrate on getting Marc and finding the slave called Noel.

Looking around, Ralf tried to remember where he and Dale had last seen Marc. Thinking it was off to his left, he started walking that way. Before long he could hear the screams of a slave, screams that could only mean one thing. Sure enough, he soon heard the sound of a slave masters whip, cracking through the screams.

Continuing on his path, he came to a small crowd of slaves, gathered around the source of the agonised screams. He paused, looking at the crowd and wondered what unlucky soul was in the centre. After a few seconds, Ralf decided to just a take a quick look. Besides, maybe it was Lym in there and this was the only chance any Ralf would have to find him.

He looked for a gap in the crowd as he approached, somewhere he could slip into the press. Spotting one between a pair of slaves, he edged his way in. Once in the crowd, he started shouldering his way towards the front, ignoring the dark looks he received from displaced slaves.

Suddenly, he was only separated from the object of the gathered slave's attention by one row. What Ralf saw shocked him. Lying on the ground and covered in blood, one hand covering his head and the other raised to ward off the next blow, was Marc. Frozen in horror, Ralf could only watch as the whip descended again and Marc howled with fresh agony. As the slave master raised his whip again, Ralf was jolted into action.

He pushed past the slave in front of him, took a step, and with a wordless cry, launched himself at the  slave master. Ralf hit him with a tackle around the chest and they both went sprawling to the ground. All the air exploded from Ralf's lungs as he landed. Rolling to his knees, gasping for breath, he looked around and saw the slave master getting to his feet.

The slave master didn't attack him straight away and Ralf was sure he knew why. Slaves just did not attack the slave masters and astonishment was clear on the faces of the slaves in the crowd. Ralf himself didn't know why he had acted but now he knew unless a miracle happened, he was probably going to die, along with Marc.

The slave master took a few steps towards Ralf and, without a word, raised his whip to begin beating him. The whip flashed down and Ralf felt a white-hot pain erupt in his shoulder. He looked at where the whip had landed and saw blood streaming from a gash.

The whip was raised again, but as the slave master went to bring it down onto Ralf, a chunk of stone smacked into his head. The slave master staggered, dropping the whip, and clutched at his head. As he turned to where the stone had come from, another chunk hit him in the back of the head. Ralf watched on as the slave master sank to his knees and pitched forward.

As if that was a signal, the crowd surged forward, with a series of screams and cries, and began beating the slave master to a pulp with rocks and bare hands. Blood began to spread in a pool as the enraged slaves pounded the body of the slave master. Drawn by the commotion, more slave masters came to investigate and when seen by the slaves, were attacked mindlessly. The slaves, after decades of oppression, were now rising.

Ralf watched on in a daze, as more slaves and slave masters were sucked into the riotous mass. With a shake of his head, Ralf brought himself back to his task. Looking around, he spied Marc lying in the same spot he had been when Ralf assaulted the slave master. Rising to his feet, he moved over to Marc to check on him.

When he reached Marc, Ralf rolled him over onto his back. Looking at his wounds, Ralf thought they weren't that bad and that Marc would be all right if they could get them looked at. The problem was that Ralf didn't think he would be able to carry Marc any distance, and so, needed to get him up onto his feet.

Lightly slapping Marc across the face, Ralf said, "Marc, wake up. We need to move."

When he didn't respond Ralf tried a slightly harder slap. With a groan of pain, Marc opened his eyes.

Ralf smiled. "Glad to see your still with me, mate."

Marc took a few seconds to respond with, "What happened? Last thing I remember is being beaten."

"Well, I may have started a riot, but that's not important. What's important is that we need to get your wounds looked at, then we need to find someone called Noel. Gaic said that you would know where he is."

"Noel? Yeah I know where to find him, but why do we need to?" asked Marc, sounding confused.

"Don't worry about that yet, first we need to get you taken care of," replied Ralf. "Let's head away from here and then we can sort it out."

Marc nodded and said, "Help me up."

Ralf pulled him into a sitting position and then moved around to his back. Slipping his arms underneath Marc's, and clasping his hands together, Ralf lift most of his weight. When Marc was on his feet, Ralf slipped his arm around Marc's waist and one of Marc's arms over his shoulders.

Ignoring the blood seeping onto him, Ralf asked, "You all right?"

Despite his face being drawn with pain, Marc nodded and said, "I'll be fine. Thanks for helping me. I really do appreciate it."

"No worries mate," replied Ralf with a laugh, attempting to make light of the situation. "Now how about we get out of here? I don't really like the idea of running into another slave master."

"I don't either," came the reply.

With that the two boys, one bloody and the other bruised, shuffled off, arms supporting each other, away from the violence escalating behind them, as slaves expressed decades of pent up anger against their oppressors.


Chapter 7


  "Here we are, lad."

Dale looked around then, when he realised where they were, his jaw dropped and he started gagging immediately afterwards. They were outside the privy cavern, where all the slaves went to do their necessaries. The cavern was riddled with holes in the floor which were used by the slaves. Unfortunately, the area below the cavern was only washed out by floods once or twice a year, so the stench became nearly unbearable, very quickly.

Tears streaming from his eyes, Dale turned to Gaic and asked, "Are you serious? We have to go in there?"

"What? Are you bothered by a little bit of a smell? I didn't think you were that precious," replied Gaic with a laugh.

Realising how he sounded, Dale grinned replied, "No. I just don't particularly want to go in there. I'm not a fan of playing with shit."

Gaic just shook his head, kept laughing and walk straight on into the privy cavern. Taking a huge breath and steeling himself, Dale followed after him. As soon as he stepped into the cavern proper, his eyes started watering. Wiping them, Dale looked around, wondering who they were there to see. Gaic had stopped just to the side of the entrance so Dale went over and stood next to him.

"So who's the guy we're looking for?" asked Dale, still trying not to breath too deeply.

"A man by the name of Til, who is usually working in here. Now shut up and let me look for him" came the abrupt response.

Opening his mouth to respond with an insult, Dale heard an odd sound coming from back outside the cavern. Curious, he turned and walked back to the entry, Gaic, too engrossed in his search for his contact, not even noticing him go. Passing unobstructed through the entrance, Dale looked for the source of the noise.

Peering back the way Gaic and he had come, Dale could tell the noises were coming from that direction. He couldn't quite make out what the noises were though, as he took a few steps towards them. Suddenly a hand clamped down on his shoulder. Spinning around, Dale lashed out with a fist and connected with something solid. Whoever had grabbed him, fell away with a grunt.

Breathing heavily, Dale looked at his assaulter. What he saw cause him to start laughing. Gaic had been the one to grab his shoulder and for his troubles, was now sporting a bloody lip. The black look he directed at Dale, only made him laugh even harder.

"Ha bloody ha," said Gaic, "I wouldn't have grabbed you if I knew you were so punchy."

Still laughing, Dale replied, "I'm really sorry, Gaic. You scared me though."

"Obviously. Now, why are you out here?"

Dale turned back to where he had been looking before Gaic surprised him. "I came out here because of the noises I could hear. Those ones from back over near the fountain, can you hear them?"

Gaic stepped up beside Dale and looked towards where Dale indicated. He remained silent for a while, but as Dale watched his face, an expression of confusion came over it.

"I don't know what those noises are, lad, but they don't sound good. At the moment though, they have nothing to do with us," said Gaic as he turned back to the privy cavern. "I found my friend. He's waiting for us to come back, so hurry up."

Dale felt a rush of excitement at those words. Finally, he might get some information on where Lym had disappeared to. Stepping quickly, he hurried after Gaic back into the cavern, not even noticing the smell this time.

They entered the cavern for the second time, Dale following on the heels of Gaic, and made a path straight for the other side. Dale looked at each person they came near, wondering if they were the mysterious friend of Gaic. Peaks of anticipation and troughs of disappointment crashed through Dale, for each slave they approached then passed.

Deeper and deeper into the cavern they moved and Dale was starting to wonder if Gaic had missed his friend or was lost. Gathering his courage to ask the question of Gaic, Dale almost walked straight into the back of Gaic when he came to an abrupt halt. Stumbling to halt, so as to not walk into Gaic, Dale was about let loose an angry suggestion for Gaic to warn him next time, when Gaic turned to him with a smile on his lips.

"Here we are, lad. A few more metres and we should get some information."

With that Gaic stepped to his left into, what seemed to Dale to be, a tiny crack in the cavern wall and disappeared. Stepping to where Gaic had vanished, Dale could see that the wall bent back on itself, to create a narrow tunnel. This tunnel was only visible if one was standing right in front of it. Dale followed Gaic down the tunnel, wondering where it went.

After a short walk, Dale stepped out into a pool of light, cast by a series of torches bracketed to the walls. Blinking away tears from the sudden brightness, he looked for Gaic and found him in conversation with a familiar man.

"You're the one who was watching Ralf and me," exclaimed Dale.

Gaic looked at the man questioningly.

The man sighed and said to Gaic, "I just wanted to see the two lads Lym had raised. Unfortunately, this one noticed me watching but I didn't think he'd seen me long enough to recognise me."

Disturbed by this answer, an answer that seemed to suggest Ralf and he were somehow important, Dale almost missed Gaic's reply.

"You know you weren't supposed to do that. That was Lym's orders," replied Gaic sharply.

"I know, I know. It was stupid of me."

"Damn right it was stupid," said Gaic before he turned to Dale. "Lad, this is Til. He's going to help us find Lym."

Dale gave Til a curt nod then turned his attention immediately back to Gaic. "What does he mean by wanting to have a look at Ralf and me? Why would he want to see us?"

Gaic, instead of responding, turned to glare at Til, who threw his hands up in the air and said, "I'm sorry. I'll go out the front and have a look at that commotion you were telling me about. You might have to fill the kid in on some things."

As Til left, Dale watched Gaic, confused and slightly apprehensive about what Gaic might say to him. He didn't understand why someone would be interested in Ralf and he. Dale was starting to get the feeling that there was more to Lym than he knew and that scared him even more.

Gaic returned Dale's gaze and it seemed to him that there was a look of hesitation in Gaic's good eye, as if he didn't want to do this but had no choice. Gaic opened his mouth and closed it a few times without saying anything. Dale decided to help him and break the silence.

"So what are these things Til thinks you should fill me in on?" he asked.

With a sharp look, as if he knew what Dale had done, Gaic replied, "Things about why Lym has taken care of you and Ralf all these years. Surely you've wondered about that?"

Dale thought about it and it did seem rather odd that an old slave would take two young children under his wing and protect them. He was annoyed with himself for not seeing this sooner.

"Yeah I guess that was a bit odd," said Dale.

"Odd is an understatement. Normally a slave won't help another slave unless there's something in it for them. A child, new to the mines, can't help another slave, so the general consensus is to let them be. Most die this way."

Dale thought about this for a minute then asked, "So why did Lym take care of me and Ralf then?"

Gaic didn't respond immediately and Dale could see some sort of a struggle on his face. It seemed as though Gaic wasn't sure of how much to tell Dale about what he knew.

Hesitantly, Gaic said, "I don't really know how much to tell you, Dale. It should really be Lym explaining this to you. What I can say is this: Lym concocted a plan years ago, when he and I were just a little older than you. The plan hinged on certain things, one being you and Ralf. So for the last decade or so, a group of us has been waiting for you to get to a certain age and for Lym to implement the plan.

"However, with Lym having disappeared, I'm not sure what to do. That's why we're here. Til knows more about the plan than anyone besides Lym. Hopefully he can tell us what to do next."

Dale didn't know how to respond. Apparently, he was just part of some plan, the purpose of which he wasn't even told. Slowly, he lowered himself to the floor and just sat on the hard ground.

Without looking at Gaic, he asked quietly, "So I'm just a part of some plan then? Same as Ralf?"

"Not to Lym, you're not. He really cares for you lads," came the sympathetic answer. "Are you okay, Dale?"

"Yeah I'll be fine. It's just a lot to take in."

"I understand. I'm going to go get Til and then we'll see what he knows. Just stay here," said Gaic.

Dale didn't answer as he listened to Gaic leave the little cave. He just stayed where he was, sitting against the wall, staring at his hands. It all seemed like a practical joke, but he knew it wasn't. Dale still wanted to find Lym, but now it wasn't just for the sake of making sure Lym was unharmed. Now, he wanted answers to all his questions.

Hearing the sound of feet moving back down the passage to the cave, Dale rose to his feet. He realised that whoever was coming down the passage was in a hurry and he started to feel like something was wrong. Suddenly, Gaic and Til burst into the cave, Til covered in sweat and panting.

Before Dale could ask what was wrong, Til burst out, "There's a bloody riot going on. I dunno how it started but it's huge and heading this way."

Dale looked to Gaic for confirmation and when Gaic nodded, started straight for the passage. He got two steps before Gaic grabbed his arm.

"Where the hell do you think you're going?" asked Gaic, confusion evident on his face.

"I've gotta go find Ralf. He could be stuck in the middle of that," replied Dale determinedly.

Til was moving to the back of the cave, but when he heard that, he turned to Dale and said coldly, "If your friend is in the middle of that mess, then you're not going to find him."

Dale looked to Gaic, who nodded and said, "He's right, Dale. There's nothing we can do for Ralf except hope that he's gotten himself and Marc someplace safe."

Despair filled Dale at those words, but he knew there was nothing he could do. It was an effort to nod his agreement to Gaic, for he couldn't trust himself not to break down if he tried speak. First Lym, now Ralf, Dale wondered if Gaic would be the next to leave him.

With a short tug at Dale's arm, Gaic guided him over to where Til was standing at the back of the cave. As Til saw them approach, he turned to the wall and pressed an inconspicuous outcrop of rock. With a dull clunk, the piece of stone sunk into the wall around it, then popped back out to its original position. Almost immediately, with grating noise that hurt Dale's ears, a section of the wall, wide enough for two men to walk side by side, sunk down into the ground.

Dale stood there dumbfounded and both Gaic and Til chuckled at his expression. Til moved back to the walls and lit an extra 3 torches. While he was lighting them, Gaic turned to Dale.

"This secret tunnel was hidden years ago by Til and Lym. They constructed the false covering, a little bit of genius. It'll lead us to a secret area. If Lym was able to move himself, then this is where he'll be."

Excited by the prospect of finding Lym, Dale said, "What are we waiting for then?"

"He's an eager one," said Til as he handed torches to both Dale and Gaic and then moved into the lead and stepped into the tunnel, loaded down with a full knapsack.

Gaic just shook his head and indicated for Dale to move into the tunnel ahead of him. Dale stepped quickly after Til, a feelings of dread and excitement filling him. He was not happy that Ralf was up in the area of the riot but the excitement of maybe being about to see Lym offset that dread. With a small smile on his face, Dale moved deeper into the tunnel, following the flickering light of Til's torch in front of him.


Chapter 8


Ralf shifted his arm that was around Marc, feeling some of the crusted blood crack. The two boys had been walking for a while and were still some way clear of the  growing riot, yet they hadn't come as far as Ralf had hoped. The main reason for that was the wounds sustained by Marc, wounds given to him by a slave master.

These wounds were all over Marc's body, but while most were shallow, superficial ones, a couple were serious, having cut deep into his body. These wounds were oozing blood and Ralf had not yet had the opportunity to try and dress them. Ralf knew he would need to do it soon, otherwise there was a good chance Marc would slip into unconsciousness and bleed out.

Looking around, Ralf tried to spot a place that was slightly hidden, where he could lay Marc down and tend to him. Seeing a likely spot, a slight recess into the stone walls, Ralf turned himself and Marc in that direction. When they reached it, Ralf took his arm from around Marc and lowered him into a sitting position against the wall. Marc gave a muffled groan when some of his wounds scraped against the rough stone.

Easing himself onto his haunches, Ralf turned his attention to Marc. Ripping open his shirt, Ralf winced. All across Marc's chest was a mass of bruises and cuts, but what made Ralf wince was the two deep diagonal cuts. One stretched from under Marc's right arm and moved in a bloody red line across his stomach. The other started lower on his left side but moved sharply across Marc's belly. Where the two wounds intersected was bleeding profusely and Ralf could see that he would need to bind those wounds soon or Marc would probably not recover.

Looking around, Ralf spied an unused blanket lying a few metres away. When he started to move towards it, Marc's hand shot out with surprising speed and grabbed Ralf's shirt.

Softly and with effort, Marc forced out, "You're not leaving me, are you Ralf? Please don't leave me."

"I'm not leaving you, mate. I'm just getting that blanket over there. I'm going to use it to dress these cuts you've got. Just relax," Ralf said soothingly, with a soft pat of Marc's arm.

Instead of replying, Marc just dropped his arm and shut his eyes. Ralf waited for a second, just in case Marc was going to say anything else, then stood and moved to pick up the blanket. Shaking the dust and dirt from it, Ralf then beat it against the wall a few times in order to get rid of any extra debris lodged in it. He knew that if either of Marc's two worst wounds got infected, he would definitely die.

The entire time, Ralf was thinking over Marc's plea for him to leave Marc behind. Until know he hadn't even considered it. However, now that it had been pointed out that he could, in fact, leave Marc behind and move on by himself, Ralf was seriously considering it.

He would be able to move much quicker if he didn't need to support Marc and he would be much more inconspicuous without a bloody, semi-conscious slave on his shoulder. Sitting down beside Marc again, Ralf was conflicted. He knew that what he was thinking of doing was wrong, even by the standards of slave life, yet, counter-weighing that was Ralf's concern for Lym.

Looking at Marc, lying there with his eyes shut, breathing shallowly, Ralf realised he would sacrifice Marc in a second if it meant he would be guaranteed to find Lym. That realisation made him feel sick, the fact that he was willing to sacrifice a life to save another, all in the name of expediency.

However, he now had a plan of action. Resolving to leave his self-recrimination for when he had found Lym, Ralf set about dressing Marc's wounds. Tearing the blanket into strips, roughly a hands width across, he wound these around Marc's torso. Attempting to cover the spot where the two wounds met was the immediate priority. Once he had done that, Ralf looked at the amount of strips left and knew he wouldn't be able to cover the rest of the wounds. Instead he used the remaining strips of blanket to bind the wound to his own shoulder, packing it tight.

Now that Marc's and his wounds were taken care of, as much as possible, Ralf knew he needed to get as much information from Marc about Noel, as he could. Nudging Marc until he stirred and became aware of his surroundings, Ralf took a deep breath and started his questioning.

"Marc, mate, I need you to tell me exactly how to find Noel."

After a few seconds, Marc replied, "Why do you want to know? You are gonna leave me behind. I knew it. I'm not telling you anything."

Inwardly cringing at so easy to read, Ralf tried to make his voice soothing, "No mate, I'm not going to leave you. I just need to know so that if you pass out again, I know where to take us. We go together, mate."

Marc stared suspiciously at Ralf, whose nervousness grew with each passing moment. He forced himself to portray a calm exterior, trying to convince Marc with his body language and earnestness. It seemed to work, as after a minute or so, Marc relaxed, the tension leaving his body.

"Alright, I'll tell you. But you have to swear that you won't leave me."

"I swear that I won't leave you behind," said Ralf without hesitation, knowing that he would never keep faith with that oath.

"Noel should be over by the fountain, on the other side to where Gaic was. He's an older guy, you know, grey hair and stooped shoulders."

"I'm going to need a bit more than that, Marc. You just described a fair few slaves in here," replied Ralf.

"Well then, let me finish," said Marc sharply. "You'll be able to pick him because he'll be the cleanest slave you've ever seen."

If he was a clean slave, Ralf knew he would be able to spot Noel easily. Down here, being coated in dust, dirt and grime was the standard. Any slave who wasn't coloured grey or brown would stand out like a beacon in the night.

Just to be sure, Ralf said, "Nothing else I need to know? If your unconscious when we get there, I mean."

After a pause, Marc gave a short shake of his head and said, "No, that's all. Just remember to say what Gaic said to say as soon as you can. Otherwise, Noel will bail before you can stop him."

"I'll remember that. Now, try to get some rest. If you can get some energy back, we'll get there much quicker. I'll wake you in an hour."

Without a word in reply, Marc shut his eyes and within a minute, Ralf could tell he was deeply asleep. Looking at Marc lying there, unable to move without help and with wounds that would kill him if left unattended, Ralf knew what he was about to do was wrong. Even trying to justify it with the excuse that Lym might depend on it, couldn't change the fact.

Before he could change his mind, Ralf rose to his feet, turned towards the fountain where he and Dale had found Gaic and started walking. He didn't look back at Marc, knowing that if he did so, his resolve would break. Instead, he silently said an apology to Marc for leaving him and tried to forgive himself. Squaring his shoulders, Ralf walked towards Noel, free of the physical burden of Marc, but knowing he would carry the emotional baggage for the remainder of his life.


Chapter 9


Walking through the area, Ralf wondered where everyone was. The space around him was nearly deserted, with only a few people still huddled under raggedy blankets. He couldn't believe that the riot he had inadvertently started, had drawn in so many people. He hoped it didn't spread this way, nor towards where he had left Marc.

He sharply reminded himself that it was the best choice he could have made under the circumstances. The justification still sounded hollow to himself. Trying to force his mind to think of anything else, Ralf went over how he was to identify Noel and what he was to say to the man.

After a while, Ralf realised he was just wandering through the middle of the cavern, out in the open, and that he would be an easy target for any slave master who was not caught up in the riot. Cursing himself for an idiot, he moved quickly to the wall and hunkered down in the shadows. Scanning the area, he saw that there was still no slave masters and few slaves in the area.

Reassured that no one knew or cared that he was in the area, Ralf started towards the fountain once more. This time, however, he was much more aware of his surroundings and he stuck closer to the wall, so that he could duck into the shadows and hide, should someone unfriendly come along. The rest of his journey to the fountain went by quickly, with nothing untoward happening.

Approaching the fountain, Ralf slowed so as to not miss Noel by mistake. It seemed unlikely considering Noel would stand out from the other slaves, but Ralf didn't want to take the chance. Circling around to the opposite side to where he and Dale had met Gaic, Ralf inspected every person that he saw, disregarding them as soon as he saw dirty skin or clothes.

Ralf was starting to get discouraged and was thinking that, maybe, Marc had given him false information. He had circled the fountain and not seen anyone who matched the description of Noel, that had been given to him. Shaking his head, Ralf decided to complete another circuit of the fountain and, if he didn't see Noel, then he would move away and consider what he would do next.

Sighing to himself, and filled with pessimism, Ralf started his circuit again. Despite his less than optimistic attitude, he still concentrated fully on the task at hand, ensuring that he missed no one. Once again, though, every slave he saw was filthy, coated in dirt and grime.

Suddenly, when he was directly opposite from where he and Dale had first met Gaic, Ralf caught a glimpse of fresh, clean skin behind an outcropping. Coming to a complete halt, Ralf stared at the spot where he'd seen the flash of white skin, hoping that he hadn't imagined it. When he saw it again, he let out a breath he didn't realise he had been holding in. Elated, Ralf started moving towards where he now knew Noel was.

Before he could close the distance though, a strong, deep voice rang out, "Stop right there. Don't come any closer."

Halting, Ralf realised he needed to follow Gaic's instructions, otherwise Noel would flee and Ralf might never find him again.

"Noel, please wait. Gaic sent me to find you. He said to tell you that he wants to leave. Gaic wants to leave."

There was a long pause, during which Ralf imagined that Noel was gone. Relief flooded through him when a man who could only be Noel stepped out from the outcropping. Noel was, as Marc had said, an older man with grey hair but, while Marc had said he was the image of cleanliness, he had neglected to mention how short Noel was. The top of his head barely reached Ralf's shoulder. Ralf didn't understand how such a small man could have such a deep voice.

Without a word, Noel strode past Ralf and started heading back in the direction from where Ralf had come, back towards the riot. Stunned for a moment, Ralf hurriedly turned and moved after him. Catching up to Noel, Ralf wondered what to say. Deciding to start with the basics, Ralf opened his mouth.

"Shut your mouth, boy," said Noel, before Ralf could say anything.

Startled, Ralf snapped his mouth shut and wondered what he had done to annoy Noel already.

As if reading his mind, Noel said, "It's nothing you've done, boy. I just don't like chatter and kids like to chatter. So, this will go a lot easier on the both of us if you just keep quiet and follow me."

Ralf just nodded and fell into step next to Noel. The problem Ralf had with staying quiet was that, the pair of them were heading straight back into the riot, inadvertently started by Ralf when he had saved Marc. Suddenly, Ralf found that he had tears in his eyes from the though of what he had done to Marc. The boy was probably dead from blood loss now, as a direct result of the wounds he had suffered. Indirectly though, it was because Ralf had decided that Lym's life was worth more to him than Marc's.

With a rough shake of his head, Ralf reminded himself that now was not the time for self-recrimination. He needed to focus on finding Lym and Dale. Once that task was done, then he could sort out his inner turmoil. Realising he had fallen behind Noel, Ralf quickened his step to catch up to him.

The pair moved hurriedly through the sparsely populated cavern. Ralf averted his eyes when they passed by the area where he had left Marc. Noel didn't let up the pass as they drew closer to the privy cavern. Eventually, they heard shouts and screams from up ahead, gradually growing louder as they drew closer.

When the shouts could be heard clearly, Noel moved off to the side of the cavern and came to a halt. For a while Ralf just watched Noel peer towards the noises, though from where they were, nothing of the riot could  be seen. Noel seemed engrossed in listening to the noises and Ralf, remembering the earlier admonishment, kept quiet.

Eventually, Noel turned to Ralf and asked, "Do you know what all the commotion is about?"

Sheepishly Ralf explained to him about what had happened earlier. Ralf told him about coming across Marc being beaten and how he had saved Marc, then how the crowd had just erupted. When he got to the part where he had left Marc behind, Ralf told it as if Marc had told him to go on without him. Noel listened to his narrative in silence, not asking anything until Ralf had finished.

"So you started a slave riot to save someone?" came Noel's question.

When Ralf nodded hesitantly, he saw a smile spread across Noel's face.

"I think I'm going to like you, boy," Noel said before turning and starting towards the riot.

Feeling buoyed by those words, Ralf set off after Noel. They moved to the side of the cavern and started walking slowly towards the riot. Ralf kept a sharp eye out for trouble. Looking sideways at Noel, he could see him doing the same.

Despite their slow pace, the pair came to the riot quickly. The deafening screams of rage from the slaves were punctuated by the crack of the slave masters whips. Wincing at the violence, Ralf clung to the wall as they moved into the fringes of the riot. Slaves rushed past he and Noel, flinging themselves at whatever slave master they could see. Glancing to the side, Ralf could see a predatory smile creeping across Noel's face. The sight of that smile disturbed Ralf, though he couldn't understand why.

By sticking to the edges of the riot, the pair moved quite quickly towards the privy cavern. They were untroubled by slaves and slave masters alike, though Noel was called to by several slaves who obviously knew him. When this occurred, Noel just waved in acknowledgement and continued on.

When they came to the entrance to the privy cavern, they ducked into it. In the short tunnel they found a few scared slaves, cowering away from the noise echoing in. The slaves pressed themselves into the wall as Noel and Ralf moved past. When they enter the privy cavern proper, Ralf didn't even notice the stench, so intent was he on finding Dale and Lym.

Confidently, Noel led Ralf to the same tunnel Gaic and Dale had used earlier. Such was the confidence Noel was exuding, Ralf never questioned where they were headed. When Noel suddenly disappeared from in front of him, Ralf nearly screamed in fright. To Ralf's relief, Noel popped his head back around the corner of the small tunnel and beckoned to Ralf to follow.

Moving into the tunnel, little more than a crack in the wall, Ralf followed the dim outline of Noel in front of him. After a minute or so, they stepped into a small, but well lit, cave. Looking around, Ralf could see some signs that someone had been here recently and left in a hurry. A few torches were missing from the walls and the shelves, set into the walls, were obviously missing things that had sat there not long ago.

Looking for Noel, Ralf found him moving purposefully towards the wall opposite the tunnel they had entered from. When he reached the wall, Ralf watched him feel around until he found an outcropping. When Noel pushed down on the outcropping, there came a clunk and then the section of wall next to Noel began to sink into the ground.

Turning to Ralf, Noel threw him a torch. Ralf nearly dropped the unlit torch, so astounded was he by the appearance of the secret tunnel.

Chuckling at the expression on Ralf's face, Noel said, "Light that torch from one on the wall, lad. We're gonna need light when we head down this tunnel."

Obeying quickly, Ralf moved to the wall and placed the head of his torch against one on the wall. Once it ignited, he moved straight over to the mouth of the tunnel and waited for Noel. Noel joined him and started straight into the blackness of the passage. Startled into action, Ralf moved hurriedly after him. Hearing a grinding behind him, Ralf turned to see the section of wall rising from the floor. With a crash it settled into the roof and the only way for Ralf, was now forward.

"Where does this tunnel lead, Noel?" asked Ralf softly.

With a sigh, audible in the stillness of the tunnel, Noel replied, "To some answers, I hope, lad."

Silently, as they walked further down the inky tunnel, illuminated only by their torches, Ralf agreed and hoped that the answers were to his liking and that Dale and Lym would be at there too.


Chapter 10


Dale felt that he had in this passage for days, though it had probably only been for an hour. The darkness pressed in against the circle of light thrown by the torches. It gave the journey an oppressive feeling, one that was not helped by the silence of the three companions. No one had made a sound since they had entered the passage.

The only feeling of comfort, for Dale, came from the fact that Til was an unerring guide. The few junctions they had come to, Til had immediately led them down one branch or another. This lack of hesitation made Dale feel secure in the knowledge that as long as he was with Til, he wouldn't get lost.

Gaic's ability to ke

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