Strength

Brigid marched at the head of the women’s train, head bowed to protect her eyes from the downpour and to avoid eye contact with the soldiers who dotted the pathway ahead. Her feet sunk into the ground where the mud sought to pluck away her worn sandals.

For the slaves the downpour was dreary, cold and would leave many with a severe and possibly deadly chill. It was however refreshing and the closest they would get to a wash whilst in the possession of their captors.

Ahead the mine loomed, its dark, gaping maw all too welcoming. A campsite of tents had been erected outside the mine by the Enforcement. The Enforcement was separate to the regular army, tasked with employing enforcers to oversee ‘domestic’ affairs that required minimal training and equipment. Typically its ranks were filled by scurrilous men who took all too much joy in their duties, that was a consequence of the job, the roles it offered attracted that sort.

Obscured by the haze of rain were two statues parked either side of the mouth of the mine. They had not been carved. The statues were placed wherever a slave force was required, a sign and symbol of the fate that awaited rebellion. Though difficult to see clearly through the rain Brigid had a clear image of the two statues etched into her mind.

The female was once known as Adelaide. She had rebelled violently against the soldiers and enforcers. Having somehow stolen a blade from a soldier, the prevailing rumour being that she had lured him in with a promise of intimate conquest, she had then struck out at him sinking the blade mortally into his side. It was not long before she had been caught, injuring three more men in the process. Her face now was monstrous, twisted in rage at the moment of her execution.

The other was a man, Bastion. He had tried to flee, spur of the moment during a mine collapse. The guards, distracted, had turned towards the loud noise and Bastion had run, making it to the top of the valley edge before the soldiers had noticed. Unfortunately, he had tripped and slid halfway back down the slope and it did not take long after that for the soldiers to catch him. He was in a kneeling position with his hands held up above him trying hopelessly to ward away his fate.

They were at the mine now, the two lines of slaves, male and female, marched inside. The men were taken further in, given a pickaxe each and ordered to hack and dig at the mine walls. The women were lined up by the cart tracks and made to sift through the mounds of displaced rock. They were to sort the rock into waste, ore that contained flecks of silver to be extracted and the large nuggets into a third pile, all cordoned off with wooden slats. As the work went on a few women were selected to trawl up and down the length of the male slaves and gather up the diggings and carry it to the rest of the women ready for sorting.

The mine itself was new however and a true silver vein had yet to be found. The men digging were still in sight of Brigid and it would be several days before they were forced to disappear into the true, deep darkness of the mine leaving only their echoes to haunt the distressed female slaves. The army maintained a small presence in the area to supervise the mining, but the deeper into a mine the slaves went the more freedom the enforcers felt.

Grunts and coughs of the slaves filled the air. Disease was virulent amongst them, spread by the poor conditions and the heartlessness of the enforcers. Those who fell ill were forced to continue working, if, as was often the case, they did not recovered from the disease before collapsing they would be discarded and left to die unable to help themselves.

The knock of metal on rock sounded rhythmically, thudding in the heads of those in the mine. It soon became synonymous with one’s own heartbeat to the point that when one of the male slaves threw down his pickaxe it garnered absolutely no response, at first.

“Back to work you!” Yelled a nearby enforcer when he finally noticed the dropped tool.

“Work on what?” Called back the man. A silence descended over the mine. Everyone stopped to see what was going on, rare as it was for anyone to talk back to the enforcers.

“Get back to work or I’ll beat you within an inch of your miserable life,” said the enforcer, speaking slowly to emphasise his words. He moved closer to the slave and held his truncheon threateningly.

“Work on what? There’s nothing here, we’re just digging away at nothing for nothing.” The slave spoke with a disarming calmness. That did not keep him from giving a cry of surprise and pain as the enforcer bashed his head with the truncheon and he fell to the hard floor.

“Refusing to work slave?”

The man sprawled on the ground turned his head to the enforcer, “I’m not refusing to work, I’m saying that what we are doing here is point-ugh!” The enforcer kicked him. “At least get us to do something worthwhile-argh!” Another booted blow knocked the wind from the man.

“Refusing to work is a sign of rebellion, and you know what happens to thems that question their betters don’t you? Fetch the basilisk!” The enforcer called to the others. One enforcer disappeared beyond the mine entrance into the rain as the first enforcer continued to beat his victim.

Brigid could stand to watch it no longer and dashed forward to stand between the slave and the enforcer            .

“Out of the way woman or I’ll see to it you’re in a worse way than him,” said the tormentor.

“He has done nothing wrong,” said Brigid.

“He is a slave that refuses to work and a slave that refuses to work is worthless to us.”

“He isn’t refusing to work though, he will do what you say if there is meaning to it.” The enforcer delivered a powerful slap to Brigid’s face and she worried that the blow had broken her jaw. She wiggled it to be sure before turned her head back defiantly to the enforcer.

“He will do whatever I say because he is a slave and a slave has no choice in what he does. And neither do you woman so get back to you place!”

Brigid did not move. The enforcer made to slap her again but looking past her changed his mind. “Ah, its here. C’mon boys we have an example to make.”

Entering the mine was the enforcer who had been sent away, returned with another man, this one holding tightly to a leash. Collared and led by stick into the cave was the basilisk. A lizard as large as a hound its dark green scales melded with the muddy floor and glistened with moisture from the rain. Blinders, black, leather squares covering its eyes, were attached to a frame around its head and that to its leash. Unable to see the basilisk moved at an erratic pace and was prodded and poked in order to drive it forward.

“Still want to defy me?” The enforcer sneered. He motioned for one of the enforcers to restrain the man on the floor while he grabbed hold of Brigid. He pulled her forward and pushed her to the ground before the lizard, its fetid breath warm on her face. Brigid shut her eyes but the enforcer gripped her head and painfully wrenched her eyelids open. “Open its eyes,” the enforcer commanded of the basilisk herder with all too much eagerness.

“Belay that,” said a commanding voice. The enforcers grip relaxed, releasing Brigid’s eyes, though he kept her pinned to the floor.

“Er, to what do I owe the pleasure Captain?” Snivelled the enforcer.

The captain was soaked with the rain having just arrived in the mine. He was of the regular army and so held higher authority than the Enforcement core.

“I heard you had requested the assistance of my little pet here and was eager to know exactly why?” The captain, a noble by birth and by station, was dressed in his finest armour, filigree decorating the edges of the metal. His breastplate was particularly magnificent, sculpted into the shape of a roaring lion.

“Rebellious slaves sir,” said the enforcer, he lifted himself off of Brigid, but kept a foot on her as he gestured to his other victim. “This man refuses to work.”

“I see, well if he hasn’t changed his mind by now then there is nothing else for it. Carry on, but first what of this woman?”

The enforcer pulled Brigid upright carelessly. “She got in the way, sir.”

“Ah yes, women are prone to such sympathetic actions. We cannot fault her for that, release her so she can get back to work.” The captain ordered. Brigid’s captor released her with a dissatisfied sigh but she didn’t move.

“Get back in line!” Yelled the enforcer.

“No matter. If she wants to watch let her, I’m sure she’ll be convinced soon enough. Take the blinders off,” came the captain’s words. The enforcer with the basilisk’s leash leant forward to slide back the black squares off the creature’s eyes. Its forked tongue darted forth with anticipation.

Around the mine, soldiers, enforcers and slaves alike turned away from the creature fearful of being caught in its petrifying gaze. The enforcer restraining the male slave held his captive’s head forward whilst turning his own away.

“Stop,” said the captain. Brigid had moved in the way once more, planting herself firmly between the male slave and the basilisk.

“You will suffer the same fate as this man if you keep this up,” said the captain calmly.

“He doesn’t deserve this, he wasn’t refusing to work.”

“Oh, he wasn’t?”

“He was!” Retorted the first enforcer.

“No,” said Brigid, “He only said there was no point in the work you set him to do.”

The captain looked over Brigid’s shoulder, “Explain yourself,” He ordered of the slave.

“There is no silver to be found here, we should not be set to a pointless task.” He said.

“I see.” The captain glanced about the mine. “Perhaps a rethink is in order. However, it is not your place to question orders, only to carry them out. The penalty still applies.”

“Then you’ll have to go through me,” said Brigid defiantly.

The captain leaned in, “Don’t think I won’t.”

“You would harm a defenceless woman?”

“If a slave disobeys, they must be punished. Regardless of gender.” The captain raised a hand to signal the unveiling of the petrifying eyes. Brigid still did not move. He lowered his hand again and sighed. “Will you return to work?”

“Yes,” said Brigid and the male slave together fear trembling the single syllable.

“Release them then, take the basilisk back to its den and half the slaves rations for the next week,” He looked pointedly at Brigid, “as punishment.”

The captain left the mine, accompanying the lizard. Brigid stared after him, the adrenaline still pumping through her blood, until the enforcers pushed her back in line and back to work.

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