And this is how I’m going to stop the Veran Empire.
It’s late that night, so late that even slaves have stopped working – at least theoretically. It’s my favourite time, and simultaneously the time that I hate most. It is dark and silent in our shed once the drivers have thrust us inside and slammed the doors, leaving sleepy guards outside. They know their job is a mere formality – nobody without a key can ever escape our prison. The walls may be wood on the outside, but from the inside the impenetrable grille of metal bars ensures that nobody could ever break through. Even air can barely pass into what we’ve come to think of as our home; we spend our nights tossing half-sleepless, half-choking on the reek of sweat and urine. Mornings always come with powerful chest pains as air finally flows into our bursting lungs.
But before sleep, and before morning, comes the evening hours when slaves remember that they are human, and this is my time to slowly conquer the Veran Empire. As the drivers’ footsteps retreat, I give myself a moment to straighten up and roll my head around, trying to work a kink or two out of my neck. I know I’ll never stand quite straight again, but the relief of standing unburdened is tremendous. Then I look around at my people, and warmth rushes through my body.
There are a hundred slaves in this shed alone, and one hundred pale faces have all turned to me. Bones stretch tight against their ashen skins, sweat and dirt caked thick between their matted hair, and rags droop listlessly off their thin frames. But they are so beautiful that I nearly choke; their deep and trusting eyes, the hope that still gleams in their faces. Even those grown bent and bitter with suffering are at least giving me a glance these days. Grizzled men with crooked fingers and grey beards; women whose tattered beauty hangs in elegant rags around them; children, still glittering with innocence and heart-wrenching hope. And young men, like me, men of steel and fire. But the fire burns low; much as they still hope, I can see my people getting weaker with every breath. My heart gives a nervous double thump. I don’t have much time.
But with the time I have, I will do my best. I smile and turn away, and the spell breaks. Instantly the faces turn away, and with tired sighs they collapse onto the straw, too exhausted to do anything more. Some of them are so tired and so beaten that they’d bleed to death where they lie. I’m here to stop that from happening.
I start at one end of the shed like I always do, crouching down beside the nearest huddled figure. “Hey there,” I whisper, careful so that the guards don’t hear, and touch a bare, wrinkled shoulder. “Ezekiel, right?”
The figure stirs and rolls over; I look into an old man’s bearded face, strangely shadowed in the lanternlight. He grunts a yes.
“You okay?” I ask quietly. “Knee not hurting you too much tonight?”
The bitter set to the old man’s mouth softens a little. “Naw, lad,” he answers gruffly. “I’m all right.”
“Good,” I say, and turn to the next one. Slowly, quietly I work my way through them all. Most of them are sleeping before I get there, and I try not to disturb them too much; the poor souls need every minute they can get. It’s not looking bad this evening; Anna squeals with pain when I touch her and I spend a few minutes massaging the spasm out of her shoulders, which are tight and agonising from bending over the seamstress’s bench, and Florimon got into trouble (again) and has been whipped. I tear another delicate strip off my rapidly shortening trousers to bind up the cut. This is my third pair of trousers this month; I suspect the drivers are going to be even less impressed with having to replace them again than they were last time.
And that’s all that I can do; it’s all that I have. Words and touches; carefully smuggled scraps of tonight’s meagre meal for the weakest; dirty rags to bandage wounds. But all these small things have a power I don’t understand, a power so great that some of the others are starting to follow my example and reach out to one another. It makes us remember names and ailments. It makes us remember that the rest of the slaves are human and hurting and can be helped. It makes us remember that we are human and can help.
I’m nearly done when a tiny set of arms locks around my thighs with a pitiful little grip and a small voice whispers, “Isaiah?” somewhere near my belt. I look down at a round, upturned face, which is mostly just eyes. Huge, deep brown eyes as liquid as a horse’s.
“Hey, Selah.” I kneel down and the little girl attaches herself to my neck like a limpet. I pat her back, wincing as my fingers find tiny bones. She’s not getting any fatter, despite the scraps I scrounge for her. Scooping her into a warm bundle against my chest, I take her to her usual corner and drape the half-sleeping child in the straw. “How you doing tonight?” I whisper, gently detaching her arms from my neck and pushing a matted lock of brown hair out of her face.
“I’m scared,” Selah breathes.
“Because…” Selah lowers sweeping eyelashes over her eyes. “I don’t want to die here.”
“But you’re not,” I whisper to her while my heart bleeds. “You’re going to get out of here. You’re going to be free, you’ll see.”
“How, Isaiah?” She looks pleadingly into my eyes. “Who will help us?”
“Oh, Selah.” I stroke her hair, wishing I could tell her everything. Every time we have this conversation – and her hopeless questions are becoming more and more frequent – I wish I could tell her the whole truth. It would change her world. But I don’t think I can risk it, and every night I bite it back. “I’ll get you out of here. I promise.”
“But how?” Tears are washing white paths through her grimy face. “You’re just one person. You can’t fight all the guards and set us free. You’re not a warrior. We’re going to die here, aren’t we? We’re going to be slaves forever.”
I can’t take it. It feels like my heart is physically cracking open, pouring pain in red waves through me. I lower my head, whispering right into her ear: “But I am.”
“You are what?”
“I am a warrior.”
Selah stares at me wide-eyed as if expecting me to pull swords out of thin air. “You are?”
“Yes. I’m more than a warrior,” I tell her, picking her up and pulling her into a warm little bundle on my lap as I make myself comfortable against the wall. “I’m a prince. I’m Isaiah Shahan, Prince of Kerrapydra.” The hope in her eyes makes it worth the risk of being overheard. I bend further until her hair tickles my cheek as I breathe the line I’ve been wanting to utter for so long: “And on my honour as the Prince, I promise to set you free.”
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Inspired by the Daily Prompt. Apologies for the change in tense, readers – present just seemed to work better. I’m drafting here!