If the Guard were in disarray before, it was nothing compared to what they were now. Their captain was gone – permanently – and it showed. Jonas had been so completely dominating in his role that I doubt any of them dared to think of who was second in command. They glanced hastily around the room, concern growing more evident by the second in their fragile expressions.
I decided to use their confusion to my advantage and stood, purposing to make a round of the cavern and check on everyone. I took Krista’s hands in mine and looked down at her compassionately.
“Can you stand?”
“I, I think so“, she breathed thinly.
“Come with me. I want to make sure everyone’s OK.”
Her expression shifted away from sorrowful exhaustion and slightly toward pleasant surprise; her eyes narrowed only just as she pulled against my grip to regain her feet. She paused and considered me for a moment but then digressed and came around to my left. Her right hand still held mine tightly; her fingers intertwined with my own.
We set off to the right side of the cavern, and approached the first group of miners: a man and woman with a young boy of perhaps eight years. As we drew nearer, the boy looked up at me with marked excitement. He was a wiry youth with matted brown hair and tan skin. He tugged on the arms of the man and woman – his father and mother, I assumed – and they looked up as well, though their expressions were much more reserved, appraising.
“Mom, dad, look! It’s Gray!” the boy said in a high cheerful voice.
He was one of the newest among us. I remembered now that he and his parents had come to the mines with the latest batch of “recruits.” I felt suddenly guilty that I did not yet know their names.
The boy broke abruptly from the arms of his parents and strode out eagerly to greet us.
“Hi, Gray! I’m Eli!” He held out his right hand expectantly.
“Eli! Get back here now!” his mother hissed at him.
I looked over to Krista, uncertain. She nodded reassuringly and nudged me forward.
I took Eli’s hand in mine and shook it once firmly. “Um…hi, Eli. Good to meet you.” My voice sounded gruff, but I tried to soften my expression to make up for it. I had never been very good at talking to people.
Eli’s brow raised, his eyes eager for me to say something more, but I didn’t know what to say. My newly found sense of kinship had, unfortunately, done nothing to improve my social skills. Eli hesitated for a moment, looking slightly crestfallen, but then perked up and continued.
“Is this your girlfriend?” He said animatedly, looking over to Krista.
“Yes, I’m Krista. Nice to meet you, Eli!” she said, assertively.
Was that pride I heard in her voice? I couldn’t help the slight grin that spread across my face as I cast a furtive glance in her direction.
“Wow! You’re really pretty! Gray, you sure are lucky!” said Eli brightly.
Krista blushed sweetly at him.
“Eli, what can I do for you?” I said abruptly.
“Oh, right!” He shook himself out of the daze and changed his voice to a whisper. “So, is it true what everyone’s saying?”
I was fairly certain I knew what was coming but I wanted to hear it from someone else before I answered. I shrugged my shoulders with a hint of bewilderment in my expression.
“You know,” his whisper strained now, “that you’re planning an escape!”
Krista and I exchanged an amused look – I almost laughed at the speed at which things got distorted when passing through a crowd. Actually, I was planning an escape, or rather, I had thought about it earlier, but I certainly hadn’t come up with anything worth sharing yet. For some reason, though, I felt like I owed Eli honesty, so I told him.
“Look, I don’t know what everyone thinks of me, but it has to be nearly impossible to get out of here alive. Even if I found a way out, the Guard wouldn’t think twice about doing away with any of us.”
Eli’s expression fell at my words.
“But…” I can’t just stamp out his hope like that “…I’m working on it.”
His face brightened again, just as quickly as it had fallen. He ran back to his parents with something quite near glee in his steps.
Krista’s expression hovered somewhere between surprise and admiration as I looked back to her.
“So you believe me then?” Krista’s words were laced with skepticism.
“I’m trying.” I forced the words out. “Krista, I don’t understand why you believe in me. I don’t understand, and yet, you still do – you deserve more than this so…so there’s nothing for me to do but try.”
The edges of her mouth curved upward, accentuating the perfect form of her cheeks. I soaked in the warmth of her expression, catching myself several seconds later, still focused on her lips…
Are you kidding? Not now, Gray…snap out of it! I chided myself for this repeat indiscretion then came to.
“Come on.” I nodded towards Eli’s family. Krista’s left hand met her right, both now wrapped around my own. Her face was angelic, her eyes shimmering in the lamplight as we walked.
Within a minute, we caught up with Eli and I extended my free hand, first to his father then his mother. “Hi, I’m Gray,” I said firmly.
They shook it, though somewhat reluctantly. Fragile smiles crept across their faces.
The father spoke in a nervous baritone, “I’m Jonathan; this is my wife, Sarah. Eli says you think there might be a way out?” He stole a quick glance over at the still oblivious huddle of the Guard. “Look, I saw what you did to that Guard captain this morning but…” he hesitated, sizing me up, “what can you really do against all of them?” He cast a more deliberate glance at the Guard.
He’s right! I have to stop this before I start getting people’s hopes up.
Krista squeezed my hand gently, encouraging me.
I took a deep slow breath, meeting his eyes in earnest, and pressed on. “Jonathan, I don’t know what strength is in me; all I can promise is that I will try to find a way. Keep your head up, and don’t let the weight of this place break your spirit. This is a hard life, but there is always hope as long as you believe things can change.”
I’d barely finished saying the words, and, already they seemed all wrong – contrived, hopelessly inadequate to this family who’d had their entire lives stolen from them such a short time ago. My heart sank as I awaited Jonathan’s derision.
To my surprise, his brow softened and his eyes filled with gratitude. He seemed lighter somehow, as if a great burden had been lifted from his shoulders.
Sarah took his hand in hers then she spoke, “We’re with you, Gray.”
I was stunned by their unreserved acceptance. Not knowing how to express my sincere thanks, I humbly bowed my head for a moment then turned to continue our circuit around the cavern.
“Bye, Gray!” I turned to see Eli waving enthusiastically.
“See you around, Eli.” I answered.
“Byyye, Krista!” Eli called hopefully.
Krista blushed and waved kindly back to him then retook my hand and we set off.
With each group of people I met, the words came easier. Just having Krista there beside me filled me with confidence I would have never thought possible. As we made our way from huddle to huddle, some were skeptical – and understandably so – but many welcomed me openly. A small part of me even started to believe I could save them. In any case, Krista believed I could, and for now, that was enough.
We’d only spoken with about a third of the people in the cavern when I noticed the Guard finally starting to realize what was going on. They seemed to have organized their ranks now, with one particularly self-assured looking individual taking the lead as they advanced. My fellows hastily broke off their conversations as the Guard passed until the last whispers trailed off and all eyes focused squarely on the center of the cavern.
“Listen up!” The new ring leader spoke in a high condescending tone. The words blended together, sounding like one rather than two beneath his nasal accent.
“I am Fontaine!” He paused a moment, apparently for effect. “I am the new captain of this outfit!” His consonants were oddly soft, sounding like he was slurring. “If you cross me, I’ll make sure you wished you’d never been born!”
“I sure am glad you all had yerselves a nice break this mornin’, and to celebrate, we’re gonna work an extra two hours tonight!”
Listening to Fontaine speak was almost comical; the way he overemphasized certain syllables and glossed over others as if they weren’t there was absurd. I sniggered to Krista under my breath. She grinned slightly and hit my shoulder, fighting the urge to smile outright.
“Now, I want every one of ya to move yer sorry asses toward the mine carts, and I don’t wanna hear a word outta any of ya!
The shuffle of feet gradually came to the foreground as everyone began moving to the back of the cavern. I found genuine difficulty in taking Fontaine seriously, but Krista was with me. The Guard were still ruthless and I knew better than to push my luck. Besides, I bet Fontaine was just itching to make an example of someone in a bid to solidify his power. I turned, still holding Krista’s hand, and followed suit.
At the back of the cavern was a steep precipice with gated boarding stations sectioned off about every twenty feet along its edge. I veered toward the far left station, remembering a small opening I’d seen several days earlier at the back of the leftmost shaft – a possible escape route. As I mulled the idea over in my head, several members of the Guard hurried past to mitigate the flow of miners now crowding at the cavern’s rear.
By the time we reached the back, two Guardsmen stood at the entrance to each station with lines of my fellows trailing away from each. A number of carts were already well on their way into the mines. I scanned the crowd for a sign of Les and his cronies, hopeful that the commotion could provide an opening for me to throw them off the ledge, but they were nowhere to be seen.
Just then, I saw Eli and his parents with several others load into a cart just two stations to our right. He looked over anxiously, his exuberance now replaced with a hint of panic. I nodded to him reassuringly and watched as his cart rolled smoothly down the shaft.
Finally, Krista and I reached the front of our line and I helped her ahead of me into our cart. I went to follow her in, but the Guardsmen to the left and right halted my progress abruptly with their batons.
Krista shot a terrified look back at me as our hands parted.
“Not so fast, hero.” The Guardsman at my right spat mockingly. “We wanna spend some quality time gettin’ to know the young miss.”
The Guardsman at my left chortled suggestively in reply.
NO! I WON’T LET THIS HAPPEN AGAIN!!!
Before I knew what I was doing, a low rumble issued from deep within me. My countenance shifted, now reflecting the fury that was boiling to the surface. I pierced viciously through their mirthful stares – I could feel my eyes glowing fiercely as I glared at them in warning.
A sensation, like a thousand burning needles piercing my skin, rushed down my shoulders, through my arms and to the tips of my fingers. I extended my hands in front of me in shock and saw that they glowed as well. My veins traced a path back toward my heart in brilliant crimson.
I felt strange, like I had a degree of control over the shimmering light that coursed through me. I had a sudden urge to force the light down through my fingers…and out?
The notion seemed preposterous to me, but my protective instinct had already taken over and cast logic aside. I willed the light down through my right arm into a concentrated mass beneath the skin of my hand. Then, before I could think, the light emerged as a swirling globe. The pain was like burning shards of glass searing their way out from the inside. I shut my eyes hard, wincing and writhing from the pain, but then I felt my fury begin to steady me.
I opened my eyes reluctantly, expecting a shredded mass in place of my hand, but it was unscathed. In only seconds, the pain had dulled and I found that I had control of the light. I feathered the globe with the fingers of my left hand and felt only strangely familiar warmth.
I refocused on the Guardsmen, who now shuddered like fearful children before me. One sentence was all I needed to make them comply.
“I’m going with Krista.”
They dropped their batons and fled, not daring to look behind them.
All was silent except for the fading footfalls of the two Guardsmen. The entire room watched in awe, not daring to exhale as I stepped into the cart and started it down the shaft – Krista and I now its sole occupants. As we slid from view, I glimpsed Fontaine, his mouth hung wide and head shaking in disbelief.