The messenger entered the throne room.
“My Lord, I have word from the council.”
The King switched his gaze from the glass pane that overlooked the mines to the man in green robes. “There has been a rumour from Faction Red. There are plans of a revolt. As suggested by the council, we seal off the Faction and send more guards into the mines to exorcise those who spread word.”
“No.” His voice was carrying, “if the miners choose to spill blood once more, then let them.”
The last revolt neared a decade ago. Over two-hundred fatalities and six-hundred casualties marked it the third biggest bloodshed across the land. The miners of Faction Red amassed a great number of rebels, but they suffered the largest defeat; one so terrible it crippled the entirety of the Faction. Both Yellow and Blue worked endlessly to amend the collapsing economy. The mines were the spine of society, providing material and wealth after the war for those above the surface.
It was the King’s word that enforced the miners as slaves.
And it was the King’s word that could put an end to it.
“Let them play their games. They are bred to be disposable.”
Darcy swung his pickaxe into cobbled wall which was damp with humidity and the sweat of the workers. The guards had started their break.
A hand tapped his shoulder and he was passed a note.
Nook in 3
He passed the note along and resumed his work for two minutes before leaving his station.
The others that worked the same row had dropped their pickaxe’s and walked through the lantern-lit tunnels. They followed the wall until reaching an alcove that hosted space for over thirty people. It was the nook for miners to take their own breaks.
Darcy sat on a crate, his back throbbing from hours on his feet.
Chris walked in and remained standing.
“We don’t have long before the guards return,” he said, “Alexander has spoken, the escape is tomorrow at dawn. Those above have caught word of the revolt. They’ve fallen for it and the plan is in full swing. Word will spread before nightfall and by sunrise, all eyes will be on the King’s platform, guarding it.”
He turned to a group of miners who were soot-black. “Is the exit ready?”
“The men on the East have kept their word. We’ve had over two-hundred miners work on it. The tunnel will be finished by morning. There will be guards on the other side, but not as many as us. We will still lose our brothers on the way.”
The miners nodded their heads in appreciation. Darcy remained fixed.
Talks of escape had been brewing for the past month.
Chris looked around. “I know not all of you are escaping tomorrow. Some have chosen to stay.” His eyes landed on Darcy.
Darcy, pinned by the gaze, was forced to speak.
“It isn’t safe. I have resurfaced before. There is no place for us to run. And the guards, they have guns to mow us down like grass.”
A sentimental word that struck the chord of many sitting there. Among the sullen faces flashed a glimpse of reminiscence. Some of the younger miners didn’t respond to the word. Some were born after the war and only knew the colour green from the guard’s robes.
Chris faltered. He longed to see nature’s exuberance once more.
“You won’t fight tomorrow at the exit tunnel?”
“Our place is here. We are brothers. Does it mean nothing to you if we are killed?”
“How can you call us brothers if you don’t fight alongside us?” said Chris, “freedom is on the heels of sacrifice. I would rather fight among my brothers than waste away in these mines.”
Darcy looked to the others who beat him down with glares.
“Have the words of Alexander not inspired you, Darcy?”
“I want to hear his plan from his mouth, not yours.”
“Impossible. His identity is a secret and it will remain that way. We will protect him, down to the last brother, in order to ensure that he will be our saviour.”
Darcy grimaced at the thought of a hidden man’s identity among them.
Alexander, the hero of the miners, couldn’t even show his face.
The King raised a brow.
“My Lord, the council has been informed that the miners have a leader.”
The miners had been raised in an environment that oppressed those with a voice. It was ensured that they grow to be meek and tender beings.
“Impossible,” said The King, “the revolts have never started from the words of a leader. Perhaps idiocy and the idiots who share a mind. It is a hivemind that influences them. There has never been a leader, nor will there ever be.”
The messenger’s lips quivered in anticipation to speak, but experience suggested he hold his tongue. There was a fine line between what the King would consider talking back and obeying orders. The last messenger had been eighteen and held his position for a fortnight before having his tongue hacked out with a hot blade.
But the messenger spoke, pushing his luck with an unfeigned concern for the King’s safety.
“The council suggest that we mount the walls with weapons in preparation for the revolt. The weapons themselves are a deterrent. The council is afraid of the courage the miners have been given from this leader.”
The King shuffled on his throne in a mounting frustration. His face was still, lost in a reverie as he pieced together the bits of information like a puzzle.
“Rebellions against guards have increased,” continued the messenger, “even with our public executions, they refuse to give up the identity of their leader.” He quickly sucked in a breath and held it.
The King smiled as if finding the answer to his despotic riddle.
“They give no identity because there is no leader,” he said, nodding in realisation at his own thoughts, “don’t you see?”
The messenger shook his head.
“They have nowhere else to go, nowhere else to turn. Don’t mistake that courageous spirit for valour. It is just a primal drive that keeps them all going – an animalistic hunger. They’ve been saturated of all hope. In a desperate time with their backs against the wall, a rumour among their own faction has sprouted like a weed – one delivering false promises.”
The messenger nodded, coming to grips with the King’s words.
“Even if this leader is a figment of their imagination, do we not burn out the weeds to prevent their spreading.”
“Go to the window and tell me what you see. Go on.”
He moved apprehensively and scanned the terrain: mounds of dirt sculpted the environment, ravines cracked the earth, opening to the mines that branched like ant colonies.
It was a painting of black and grey, red and brown, all the colours an artist might use for a message of the overworked and indifferent.
“I see,” he traced his finger along the glass, following the movement of the metallic spines that reeled in each load on steel cables, “something contrived.”
The King nodded, “and in something so artificial, do we not seek the natural?”
The messenger turned to his lord.
“Weeds will grow and we will not interfere. With nothing to feed them, in the end they’ll starve.”
“Yes, my King, I shall inform the council.” He turned to leave the chambers.
“Tell them that we will mount the walls in preparation of a revolt. But in case the miners have had enough bloodshed and turn a blind-eye, we will double all guards on the mine’s perimeters. Any stragglers who try and run will perish.”
The guards neared the end of their break.
Chris stopped Darcy as the other miners moved back to their post.
“Your decision is final?” he asked, “you won’t be fighting alongside us tomorrow?”
Chris winced and dropped his head. “Not even in the name of Alexander? He will guide us out of here.”
“I have given up on that name,” said Darcy.
“You have given up on him,” corrected Chris, “you choose to stay in these dust-filled mines, pressed under the fat thumb of the man on the throne until the day you die?” He tutted, “at least have faith in our saviour.”
There was a fine line between those that believed in the salvation and those who didn’t. It was also the line that separated those with desire, an unfeigned hope with semblance to the past life’s candour, and those who wouldn’t tweak under the thought of unending enslavement.
“I will remain where I belong,” said Darcy.
“You have no dignity. You talk like a new miner, one who was born into this world without seeing the last. It is understandable for them to not want to escape, but for you? Darcy, you know what it’s like outside, so why don’t you fight for it! We are not miners, it’s not in our blood. But we are fighters. Fighters by nature.”
It was the final nudge at Darcy’s reluctance.
“To fight once is brave. To fight again is futile.”
Chris scoffed, “you’re afraid.”
“Blood will be spilled in litres. Many will die.”
“And you? As a coward,” said Chris, prodding Darcy’s chest, “you have already died a thousand times.”
“Then I have also lived a thousand lives,” he said as walked back into the tunnel, “and in each one, I know my place. I wish you all good luck tomorrow.”
He walked back to his post.
“Coward,” was the last word Darcy heard Chris speak.
Darcy’s night was restless.
In it, bodies motioned past him as the guards slept, murmurs filled the caverns, and miners slugged their tools along as make-shift weapons. The light was low, but even through the darkness, the looks of disappointment from his brothers still branded Darcy’s sordid unwillingness to fight. He tried his best to sleep, and once the footsteps ceased and rest finally overcame him, an alarm blared its ringing soprano.
Darcy sat up. The tunnels around him were empty.
Contrition pecked at his mind and he grabbed his pickaxe to work away the thoughts.
The alarm could only mean that they had reached the end of the escape tunnel and had been seen.
It isn’t my wrongdoing, he told himself. A miner’s greatest tribulation is their courage, an unnatural drive for freedom. It was never meant to be. He was no fighter, but a miner.
Yet even the weakest fighter overcomes the brave who are blind to the path they walk.
The alarm was soon drowned out. Darcy swung his pick at the wall.
Anything to distract his mind. Gunshots echoed deep into the tunnels.
Darcy paused and listened, catching onto the audible motes of shouting from his brothers.
He lowered his head. There is a chance of escape, he thought. If the surface has not caught onto the plan and focusses all attention onto the King’s platform.
The alarm was worrying, yet there was no one to ask of his brothers’ success, nor anyone to confide in his questions. Should I have fought with them? He asked himself.
They were pointless questions. All he could turn to now was Alexander: the graceful, the saviour, the hopeful, the false, the wrong, the delusive.
He said aloud, “Am I brave? Tell me I’m brave for not running.”
No one replied, not even Alexander.