by Chris W
A fantasy short story created for the CSFS Great Hall of Contest.
|Archaeological dig prompt. 1705 words.
Up until two weeks ago, El had a father. At least, he knew a man that he thought was his father. Anger burned inside of him as he thought about it. Life was hard enough, wasn’t it? He was already lowborn. Need he add bastard to his already lackluster title?
His mother’s words had hurt him to the bone. Of all the days she could have told him, she chose the day he was sent away to the mines. She had said she wanted him to know the truth, in case he never returned from the horrid, dangerous work. El did not care. The last thing he needed was something terrible to cloud his mind and dampen his mood while he performed such demeaning, backbreaking work.
The constant clanging of metal against stone pounded in his ears. He tried desperately to lose himself in the work, but it was no use. The pick in his hands only emphasized his thoughts.
El grunted, trying to shake off his thoughts, and faltered for only a moment in his rhythmic work.
“Problem, lowborn?” A nearby patrolling taskmaster was at El’s side in a flash, obviously waiting for an excuse to break the doldrums of his own uneventful day.
“No, taskmaster.” El raised his arms to continue his work.
Pain exploded in El’s head. He fell to one knee, the sharp gravel biting at him. The pick clattered to the ground.
“I-I didn’t know your name.” El rubbed just above his ear. His fingers came away bloody.
“You do now, boy.” The taskmaster spoke from only a few inches away, his hot stinking breath cascading across El’s nostrils like a rotten fish tumbling out of a refuse cart. His black eyes narrowed as they wandered over the red scar tissue on El’s temple that formed a perfect R. “Get back to work.”
El nodded and tried to stand. He was a bit shaken by the blow, but he was young. He would recover. There were many here that would not recover from such a blow. Some of the men at the mine were old enough to be El’s grandfather. He pondered briefly on what it would be like to have one of those, before he focused back on his work.
Days passed. Slaves fell, and others replaced them. El tired, even his youth not granting him reprieve from the intense grind. The only change came in the attitude of the taskmasters, and El would not have noticed that had it not manifested itself in the form of extra lashes.
The taskmasters were growing antsy. They inspected the northern tunnels constantly, milling about, almost falling over each other. After a few days of this, a nobleman appeared to assume command of the search. The taskmasters hung back, cowed by this man. He treated them almost as badly as they treated the slaves. They were just passing it on, El realized. The fact did not release the taskmasters from their guilt in his eyes, however.
The nobleman marched around the northern tunnels, his fine attire clashing with the dull gray rock and the rags slung over the slaves. He spat venomous words at any slave that dared look him in the eye. A swift lash always followed.
“I can feel it.” The nobleman raised his arms and spun slightly, as if engaging the entire mine. His eyes gleamed, declaring his madness for all to see. “It’s close.”
The nobleman disappeared from El’s sight, making his way around the tunnels with zealous fervor. A pair of taskmasters trailed behind him just out of earshot, muttering to one another. El continued to work, but he tried to time the falling of his pick around pauses in their conversation.
“The prince has lost his senses.” El recognized the raspy, gruff voice as belonging to Turge.
“Not much we can do. The Crown has sent him here to retrieve the cursed thing, so they must have faith that he won’t destroy half the region before he returns it.”
“It’s wearing on me too. The pull of the thing, it’s so strong. The Prince is already so powerful. The draw for him must feel crushing.”
“At least the lowborns don’t feel it. I couldn’t imagine dealing with that nightmare.”
The rest of the conversation faded from El’s hearing as the pair rounded a corner to another tunnel. He tried to piece the conversation together, turning the words over and over in his head. The mine had only been reopened recently, after a few decades of lying dormant with most of the veins of precious ore already harvested.
“You had better get your mind back to the work, boy.” An older man with graying hair half-whispered from a few feet away. “Or you’ll end up with a knot on the other side of your head to match.”
El nodded and picked with renewed fervor at his target. The taskmasters and the prince had headed further up the tunnels, however. He guessed that they must be close to their real objective, and would soon grow less interested in the remaining slaves’ duties.
A thought crept unbidden into El’s head. Lowborn. Maybe he wasn’t lowborn after all. His mother wouldn’t have kept it from him if he was the son of a baseborn fool, would she? Surely she had a reason to keep his heritage secret. Bastards of the highborn were rounded up and slaughtered like suckling pigs.
So could he feel this object that the prince was looking for? Certainly, there was a dull longing in a corner of his mind. He had previously attributed it to the heartbreak of losing his father in title and his punishment of being sent to the mine for insubordination. His rebellious attitude towards the local highborn had been awarded with a life labor sentence and a brand to match.
As the day wore on, the tension in the mines increased tenfold. Taskmasters abandoned the other parts of the mine, all hanging out in the northern tunnels, despite the prince’s efforts to drive them back to their duties. El managed to stay close to the prince as he roamed the tunnels like a bloodhound on a prisoner’s trail. Not a single taskmaster batted an eye at this, not even Turge. They were obsessed with whatever was calling to them.
“Get back, dogs!” The prince hurled an overzealous taskmaster back against the wall of the tunnel, scattering debris and jarring the man. “Get this free.” He jabbed a finger at a slave next to El.
The slave exhaled nervously, wiping sweat and stringy, dangling hair from his face. He hefted his pick and stepped toward the section of rock that the prince had motioned to.
“Be quick about it!” A sharp cuff from the royal heir drew blood from the slave’s brow.
Trembling, the slave aimed at the rock. A tiny sliver of black glass was visible. El drew in a breath. A sliver of sweat trickled down his cheek.
The slave’s pick fell around it, carving into the rock imprisoning the jewel.
“Faster. You can’t hurt it, not with that.”
In seconds, the jewel was free. El leapt forward as it began to fall, his feet kicking loose gravel backwards at his stunned compatriots. He shouldered aside the prince, whose entire attention had been locked on the tumbling gem.
The gem fell into El’s outstretched hands as he barreled into the tunnel wall. Sharp rocks tore into his shoulders through his meager rags. His knees shredded on the razor sharp gravel as he fell, clutching the onyx jewel.
It felt no different than any other stone. It was cold against his palms. No power crept through its slick, glassy shell. None at all.
Lowborn after all.
El slowly turned his head to behold the scene in the torchlit tunnel. The slave that had freed the jewel lay against the wall behind the prince, bleeding from his mouth and gasping for air. The prince himself stood tall, staring down at El with wide, angry eyes.
El realized that this was the first time he had actually beheld the crown prince. His golden mane was disheveled, lending credence to the madness in his gaze. His royal attire had gone unwashed in the last few days as he roamed the underground, waiting for his prize.
The prize El held tight with both of his hands.
“The stone does not work for a slave, fool.” The prince’s voice was strong and deep, but seemed strained by some unseen stress. His eyes had grown bloodshot, and one twitched as he stretched a hand towards El. “But fear not, I will let you touch its power. I will bathe you in it, as it peels the flesh from your weak body.”
El looked past the prince. The entire mine workforce had assembled behind the prince. The taskmasters stood in front of all of the curious slaves, their eyes darting back and forth between the prince and the jewel. The slaves did not seem to know what to look at, but they were inevitably drawn to the scene in general.
The taskmasters bore the same hungry eyes as the prince. El saw Turge even lick his lips, his eyes transfixed on the black gem.
The prince lunged for El.
A rock from El’s right hand smashed into the prince’s jaw. El had cradled the jewel in his left and picked up a loose chunk of debris moments before. Howling in rage and only slightly thrown off, the prince grabbed at El with unbelievably strong hands.
It was too late for the prince. The onyx gem sailed over his head and landed with a tinkling sound at the feet of the taskmasters.
“Touch that, and you’ll answer to me!” El was forgotten quickly. The prince sprang to his feet, barreling towards the taskmasters.
Turge hesitated for only a second. He seized the gem as the prince lunged.
Blinding light spilled throughout the tunnel. Screams pierced the air. El felt his way along the wall, hoping he was headed in the direction of the surface.
If they catch me this time, he thought, I’ll get more than a rebel’s brand.