Threatening Angels: Isaiah Shahan Part IV

That night, I dream of an angel. She doesn’t have wings. She has golden hair and bright blue eyes, and she’s the princess of the Veran Empire. But she is still an angel.

Screams shake me out of the dream. Instinctively, I tighten my grip on the fragile body in my arms and curl myself protectively around it as rough hands wrench at my fingers. A hand slapping across my face forces me to wakefulness and I realise that it’s Selah I’m clinging to – she must have fallen asleep in my lap again – and her drivers are trying to pull her away. Instantly, I let her go. Holding on will only get her into trouble.

Half-asleep and scared, Selah screams my name as they push her to her feet and shove her towards the door. “Isaiaaaaaah!”

I want to run after her and jerk her away from the careless men who shove her towards the factory, but I know I can’t. “Selah! Be brave. You’ll be fine!”

She gives me a last frightened look, resolve blossoming among terror in her eyes, and then she’s gone, thrust into the backbreaking work along with a group of other tiny children. Bitter hate burns in my throat for whoever was heartless enough to decide that small hands were useful for making chain mail. I force it down; whips are cracking, and it’s time for work. I step after Rogan – known as number 11 to everyone else – and follow him to the coal pits.

As I shove my stiff shoulders under the first carrying pole of the day, my mind is elsewhere; on the whispered conversation between Selah and I last night. She believed me instantly; that’s just her.

“How did you get here, Prince Isaiah?” she asked.

“You don’t have to call me that,” I smiled. “It’s a long story for another time, but I can tell you that it’s all part of the plan to set all of you free.”

“How will you ever set us free?”

I pitched my voice as low as I could, holding her ear to my mouth as she slowly dropped off to sleep, and I breathed the outline of my plan to her. Maybe it was reckless; even the most loyal child might let slip in a careless moment. In that moment, I cared for nothing but reassuring her. I kick myself a little for that. It felt like a good idea at the time, but it won’t be if it causes the plan itself to fail.

Selah is the only person in the entire Empire who knows that slave number 12 is the prince of Kerrapydra. If the Empire knew how I ended up in slavery, they wouldn’t believe me, anyway. I knew that the only way to get into the very heart of the Empire was to let them take me there. Once inside, I found a force of Kerrapydran men larger than what remained of the army – even without the women and children. Broken men, chained and shackled as much in spirit as in body, but I know Kerrapydrans and I know that an unquenchable flame burns deep inside. If they could be freed and armed, it would take just the heft of a sword for them to remember who they really were.

But that was the hard part. Weapons were made and handled only by women; Verans had had enough tastes of Kerrapydran fighting prowess to know that giving a male slave a sword was a stupid idea. Getting to the armoury would be quite simple – inside the Capital, the only locked rooms were the slave sheds (prisons were nonexistent; all crimes were capital) – but getting out of the sheds was nearly impossible. Unless you had a key. And I knew only one way to get to one: Kill a driver. But unarmed, I knew I could only take on one driver at a time, which only happened in dire emergencies. Questioning the other slaves had revealed that the only time when slaves were left with only one driver was if a fire started in the factory. All I could do was wait.

A snatch of conversation floating through the crowd catches my attention as I trudge through the marketplace. “… Princess will be trying another of her stunts again.” The masculine voice drips with menace, and my heart gives a nasty little jump. I slow my steps as much as I dare, listening intently.

“Are you sure?” The second voice has an edge to it that sends ice cubes down my back.

“Positive. It isn’t hard to bribe Slave 66.”

“And you’re sure she told you the route?”

“Yes. Through the marketplace, down the slave alley while it’s quiet, then up the battlements and down the wall.”

“Only she won’t get as far as the battlements… will she?” The question turns up like the end of a curved knife.

“No. Empty slave alley? It’ll be piece of cake. Little princess doesn’t even suspect that she’s about to be shipped to Ferryvale.” The chuckle is an innocent thing to have a playground as dangerous as this rough voice. “They still believe the girl will buy them their freedom. All they’ve done is empty their coffers. And it’s a good enough deal for the Emperor that we’ll be fed fat for the rest of our lives on our little… commission.”

A whip sings through the air; I dodge automatically, but the edge still catches the back of my knee with an agonising sting. “Move along!” bellows the driver, and I double my pace. I’ve heard enough. My angel is in danger, and the thought bellows through my blood until my body pounds with it.

I have to do something.

*   *   *

To Be Continued…

Inspired by the Daily Prompt.

To Inspire Trust: Isaiah Shahan Part III

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.

“Why?”

“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.”

 

*   *   *

Inspired by the Daily Prompt. Apologies for the change in tense, readers – present just seemed to work better. I’m drafting here!

Beast of Burden: Isaiah Shahan Part II

The diamond moment was gone, the girl had passed, and under the driver’s whip I staggered to my feet and trudged after the slave in front of me, trying to keep the bitterness out of my head. If I could conjure up a golem out of nowhere and have it relieve me of just one chore, it would be the carrying. I hated it.

Oh, the physical part of it was bad, yes. The poles were cheap and slender, and they gnawed steadily into my shoulders with every step. Occasionally they’d break with an earsplitting crack and snap down on either side of my neck so fast that I had no way of stopping them until they’d slap into my flesh. I didn’t even know you could get blisters the size of the ones I permanently had on my hands and shoulders; callouses didn’t come naturally to my pale skin. The pull of the pole on the back of my neck left my whole body aching permanently and I knew that I’d already lost my upright bearing. I stooped like an old man, and I was barely more than a boy.

No, not more than a boy, not anymore. In the eyes of all the free men, I was a beast of burden.

Careful not to slow down, I shifted the pole slightly across my shoulders. My load was unforgiving, and unmercifully heavy, and it was the worst part. The two buckets of coal were filled to the brim and spilling any meant a sure lash across the bare back or calves, and soot blew into my face in the slightest wind. But that wasn’t why I hated this endless daily chore. Shaking my sweaty hair out of my eyes, I squinted upwards as far as the pole would allow, past the bent and broken head of the man in front of me, past the grime and sweat and toil of the slave line, past even the glittering citadel on the hilltop, and to the factory that brooded behind. Smoke poured from its ugly squat smokestacks, casting a shadow day and night across the city and across the country. And someday, I knew, that shadow would reach as far as my home country.

I didn’t know what the smoke and coal had to do with it, but I knew that other slaves – some of them mules – dragged load after load of glittering weapons out of that factory. All uniform, and all deadly; pikes, maces, battleaxes, ugly shortswords, and sometimes the massive siege weapons that could wipe out a battalion in a second. Those weapons were all going home – my home Kerrapydra, to finally overrun the last tiny kingdom that dared to take a stand against the mighty Veran Empire that had been built on the trade of human beings.

That was the worst part of slavery, worse than any of the little things my body had to endure. Every glance at my fellow slaves wrenched my heart a little harder, made my soul bleed a little more. This is what the Empire wanted with my people, with all people.

And I was going to stop them.

*   *   *

To Be Continued…

Inspired by the Daily Prompt.