The Fifth

A few weeks have passed since Ishma’s release from the deep cell and her return to working in her branch of the mine. Many had expected her to do something now that she has returned, but Ishma hasn’t. Instead, she has kept her head down and diligently worked. She isn’t sure whether the guards believe she is reformed or not. However, she has to keep up the appearance that she is a conformist now so not to draw attention to herself and risk losing the crystal in her possession.

She hasn’t told a sole about its existence, but she has heard rumblings of a group thinking of trying to mount an escape. She has to find out more. She believes this could be her chance. If she can just leave this place then she will have a chance at starting a new life. She doesn’t know where yet. Seeing as first she has to escape, which is why she is following a group of children to the supposedly secret meeting.

Will they think I’m a spy? She asks herself while keeping her distance and making sure to keep to the darkest of the shadows in the mine. For what reason she isn’t sure as the children show no sign of being aware of her presence. Perhaps this is a trap, she thinks to herself. It’s a possibility that she has to seriously consider. Seeing as the children are completely unaware of her presence as she follows them, how can Ishma be sure that they too aren’t completely clueless as to whether they too are being tracked by the guards? Ishma doesn’t know but she takes a quick glance over her shoulder just to check. There is no one there and she is simply letting her paranoia get the best of her. That’s what they want you to think, the voice in her head informs in the moments before she slips through the crack to the secret meeting. It’s being held in the remnants of a collapsed branch of the mine. Ishma doesn’t know how many slaves died as a result of the collapse, but she can well imagine. What a terrible way to go, she thinks to herself as the assembled group of fourteen faces all turn toward her.

“Hi.” Ishma offers nervously. She can’t read the faces staring back at her. They are blank and caked with thick black dust that helps to hide their features. There aren’t many of them, the voice in her head remarks offhandedly.

“You’re the only that stood against the guards and faced the lash, aren’t you?” A boy maybe the same age as her asks. She can’t tell what colour his hair actually is but his eyes are grey. She can just about make that out in the low light and that surprises her.

“That’s me.” Ishma confirms with a single nod of her head.

“It doesn’t surprise me that you would want out of here. Please, join us. We welcome you.” The boy clearly trying to sound older than his actual years says with a warm forced smile and a gesture for her to join them.

At first Ishma hesitates and wonders if this is a good idea, or whether this boy is some form of plant, but ultimately she ignores such fears. She needs out of this place and can’t let doubt stop her now, she thinks as she steps closer to the group, so that she is a part of the huddle.

Ishma listens intently as the boy announces that they have a chance at escape. The boy explains the plan as well as how they are going to combat the shackles that limit their movements. Ishma has to admit that this is brilliant, if true. She doesn’t know why but for some reason she is sceptical. She wants to believe it’ll be as easy as this boy is making it sound, but how can it be? And how will they get a hold of one of the keys? The guards will surely notice if any child gets too close. They always do. Ishma doesn’t know how but it’s like they are unnaturally aware of presences close to them. She wishes she possessed such abilities.

Pay attention! The voice in her head shouts angrily. The sudden outburst from her subconscious is enough to bring Ishma back to the present as the boy informs them that they have the key, which a young girl holds up proudly. From the size of the girl Ishma guesses her age can’t be much more than maybe seven. The sight of the filth covered girl breaks Ishma’s heart. None of us should be made to work this mine, but especially not a child as young as her.

It doesn’t take long for the boy to conclude his speech. Making sure that each and every one of the boys and girls assembled before him knows what is going to happen. At which point he dismisses them and urges them to get as much rest as they can. They will be making a break for freedom tomorrow night, when the moon is at its highest. Ishma wonders how they can be sure that they’ll have the timing right, but quickly withdraws from the collapsed remnants of the tunnel and returns to her own branch.

The decision was taken, with her addition to the escape plan, that the other children will join her branch for work the next day. Their faces will appear no different to the guards compared to those that normally work the branch with Ishma. A few of those who are part of the intended escape plan are even from Ishma’s tunnel, but the boy she had protected hadn’t been one of them. She isn’t even sure she knows what he looks like enough to be certain however.

The change in branch workers is due to the fact that they can’t afford for Ishma to change tunnels. The guards know who she is, which is no surprise seeing after her defiance and the fact that she towers over most of the other children, who she is also generally older than most of as well.

But as Ishma settles down for the night she concludes that she would be better not to dwell on her thoughts and instead get a good night’s rest, which is what she does. It doesn’t take her long to drift off to sleep with a smile on her face. Freedom is so close she can almost taste it, which is just as well as the next day drags on longer than usual.

Ishma’s arms ache as she slams the blunt pickaxe into the rock wall ahead of her. They never find anything down here of any note. Instead they just chip away slowly at the rocks. That is why when Ishma’s shift finally comes to an end she is thankful, part from the reality that she is a little stiffer than she would usually be. But she doesn’t care about that now. She can almost taste her freedom.

The group of children that have joined her branch, having swapped with her regular group all of whom were too weak to argue, assemble and quickly pass the key around releasing each other’s shackles from both their ankles and wrists.

Ishma rubs at her free unrestrained limbs for a time. Though as soon as she is sure no one is looking she checks on her only possession, the crystal. She has contemplated throughout the day whether she should be honest with her fellow conspirators, but she simply can’t bring herself to do it. She can’t afford for any of them to try and rob her of her future just because of some jealous want on their part.

The boy, who she doesn’t know the name of, calls for the entire assembled, and now unshackled, group to follow him. Ishma is one of the furthest back from him as they keep low and move as fast and as silently as they can. There are fewer guards at this time than she had expected there to be. If she had known this she would have tried to escape weeks ago and she curses herself for believing the conquerors claims of utter superiority. That is unless they have become lax, she offers in response to her own internal discussion as the open maw that serves as the entrance to the mine comes into view. Ishma’s heart skips a beat at the sight of it. She can barely believe that she has made it here, but as they get nearer torches appear ahead of them.

“Where do you think you’re all going?” The shift captain, the same one that gave Ishma fifty lashes, questions moments before more guards appear from shadows along the edges of the entrance tunnel. The guards now have the children cut off completely.

“Run!” Ishma screams. She has no idea where to or how, but it’s all she’s got.

The children react in an instant as they launch themselves into a desperate frenzy. They race off in every direction. A few head back toward the security of their tunnels, but are cut down by the guards blocking their paths. Most of the fourteen strong group surge forward only to be jabbed at with fiery torches. Many of the children scream in pain as the fire burns and boils their flesh. Not that the guards care as they quickly pull their swords and cut down a couple of the closest children.

“Disobedience will not be tolerated.” The shift captain roars as Ishma’s eyes go wide. She had never considered that the soldiers would be this barbaric as one of them rushes her. She puts up her fists ready to fight but the guard cackles cruelly as Ishma is jumped from behind by several other guards. They pin her to the floor, while many others corner the few children, eight to be exact, that haven’t been murdered in cold blood. Ishma feels despair weighing heavily on her conscious.

Ishma catches sight of the shift captain congratulating the girl, who had apparently secured the key, for her part in the plot. Ishma feels rage boil inside her as she snarls. She allowed the sight of this young innocent looking girl to be her downfall. Ishma doesn’t know what her punishment will be this time, but she has a few ideas. Will it be a hundred lashes, or perhaps she’ll simply be whipped until she is dead. How can she have been so stupid? Ishma asks herself as she watches the shift captain grab hold of the young girl and calmly snap her neck.

“Noooooo!” Ishma screams. While the girl may have betrayed them Ishma can’t believe that the shift captain has killed her. But it is clear that no one else has seen or caught that this girl had been their betrayer.

“Oh look what we have here.” The shift captain says as he covers the short distance between the now dead body of the young girl and the restrained Ishma. The other children are cowering silently with their backs against a wall of the mine’s entrance tunnel.

“Haul her to her feet.” The shift captain orders bluntly seconds before Ishma finds herself on her feet once more. She tries to break free but the iron grips of the guards are too strong for her to fight.

“You murderer!” Ishma spits angrily.

“Search her.” The shift captain orders without another word. He has no intention of rising to the girl’s claim. He doesn’t care what she and the other slaves think of him. They are lucky to be alive, those that are still living that is.

Another guard searches Ishma as she is held in restraint. She tries to fight them off. She can’t afford for them to find the crystal.

“Get your hands off me.” Ishma demands before she is backhanded across the face. The sting of the impact makes her vision blurred. She has to blink several times before it clears. By that time the guard has hold of the crystal.

“What have we got here?” The guard asks as the shift captain moves closer. He is expecting a homemade weapon, poorly fashioned and useless against their armour but what is shown to him by his subordinate is a green crystal. It is unlike anything he has ever seen and it gives him an idea, a cruel wicked idea.

“Look men, we have found the mastermind of this plot.” The shift captain declares showing the crystal to the rest of his men, as well as the children that are still alive.

“Liar!” Ishma spits moments before her arms are twisted painfully.

“You planned to escape these mines and then run away, using this to pay for your passage, didn’t you? Admit it and we might be lenient on you.” The shift captain demands.

“Never.” Ishma answers only for the shift captain to respond not with words but with actions as he drops the crystal to the floor and then crushes it beneath his boot.

“NOOOO!!” Ishma cries.

“Your plot has been thwarted. You will never be free. Your stolen passage has been revoked and your punishment will be the arena. Enjoy death.” The shift captain concludes before issuing a wave of his hand.

Ishma is dragged away as the guards kill the last of the children that tried to escape. Tonight has been a good night, the shift captain thinks as a broad smile sits carved across his face. This is one of the few times he wishes his enemies could see his face, but they don’t deserve the honour. He only hopes that he gets to see that girl die brutally in the arena. However, he doubts she’ll last long because no one ever does.

Ishma feels broken. Her hope is gone. It has been literally crushed beneath the boot of her enemy and now she’ll face the arena. It is certain death and even the children in the mines know this. It’s a blood sport introduced to what remains of Skywall by the War-King. His people occupy the kingdom now, live in the homes that had once been inhabited by the children of the mine, and their now dead families. But Ishma doesn’t care. She will never escape the hell that her life has become. Of that she is certain. She even played into their hands. How could she have been so stupid? She wonders as she is consumed by the undisputable defeat that has been doled out to her.

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