Authors: A.J. Dalton
‘How dare you!’ Darus blazed, his voice so loud it echoed throughout the level. Eyes wild with fury, he stepped forward and violently backhanded the old man.
Norfred crumpled to the ground, Darus shrieking as he discovered he’d again fractured his arm that had only recently mended.
With a roar louder than any rockfall, Freda surged towards the hated Gang-leader. Darus had brought two of his biggest men with him, and they came forward now to meet her. One slammed a giant fist into her chin, but she barely felt it, while the bruiser cried out as several of his knuckles broke. She smashed her forehead into his nose, instantly turning his face into a bloody mess. Then she swung her right arm and hit the other miner across the chest with it. He flew backwards into the cave wall, his head cracking sickeningly against the rock. He slid to the floor and blood began to pool around him.
She advanced on Darus now, intent on pounding him to dust. The Gang-leader whimpered in fear and she smelt urine.
There was a weak cough and Norfred called to her. ‘Freda, don’t! I need your help. Leave him! Freda, come lift me up and take me somewhere safe. Freda, I need you.’
She hesitated with her two boulder-like fists raised above Darus’s head. Then she lowered them slowly and turned back towards the other, he who made her complete, he whom she only wanted to make happy and protect. But she had not done enough to protect the other, and now he was hurt. She was suddenly terrified that he would stop completely. She stumbled to him in haste and lifted him as gently as her clumsy hands would allow. He was so light and fragile. She could tell he was weakening. She sensed something like a small cave-in in his head, but this time she didn’t know how to save him.
‘Freda is sorry, Norfred!’ she moaned.
He ran trembling fingers across her cheek and whispered, ‘Do not be sad, Freda. I have had a long life, longer than most. And I am happier than any that ever lived that I got to know you.’ He coughed weakly and his rheumy eyes clouded with pain. ‘Promise me?’
She lowered her head closer to his lips. ‘Anything, Norfred!’
‘Promise me that you’ll go to the top of the mine and beyond. You deserve to be free of Darus and his cruelty. I wish I had listened to you before, and now it is too late, my dearest Freda. If you see … if you see Jan, tell him I … I miss him and love him.’
‘Don’t stop, Norfred, pleeease!’
The life in him guttered like a miner’s candle. ‘There’s no pain now, Freda. Take me to the women. They will know how to tend to my body. Be free and happy, my dearest Freda.’
And then all was darkness. Where once she had found comfort, nurture and texture in that darkness, now it was empty. It was a void where the silence was eternal and deafening.
‘You’ll pay for this, you freak,’ Darus promised quietly as he watched the monster retreating down the tunnel, cradling the old bag of bones.
The women had always been kind to Freda, although she didn’t understand the look of sympathy that was always in their eyes when she spoke to them. She was grateful for it now though.
‘Place him here, you poor thing,’ Mistress Widders said gently. ‘That’s it. We’ll look after him and see to it that he’s prepared in the proper way. He’ll join the spirits of those who went before him, dear. He’ll be cast into the bottomless pit, which is one of the eternal places.’
Freda’s sharp ears picked up shouts in the distance, but no one else seemed to have heard them yet.
‘It goes on forever, you see. There is no death or unhappiness there. He’ll be welcomed by the Overlords who have gone before him, and he will be treated as if he were their equal. They will celebrate his life and name him an Underlord of this world. And he will wait for you, Freda, and you will see him again one day.’
‘I will?’ she asked in wonder, suddenly filled with hope and smiling so widely that flakes of skin rattled off her cheeks. ‘If I cast myself into the bottomless pit, maybe I can see him straight away!’
Mistress Widders’s face fell. ‘No, Freda, that would be wrong. The Overlords will not receive us in the eternal world until we have first finished all our work for them in this world. Do your duty by them here, and then you will be welcomed by them. They will call you to them when the time is right. It was Norfred’s time, but it is not yet yours. Norfred will wait for you and watch over you. Do you understand?’
She nodded heavily. The shouts were closer now. The anger in them was plain to hear.
‘What’s that commotion now?’ Mistress Widders asked in exasperation. ‘Will these men never abide? There is grieving to be done, respects to be paid and prayers to be said. Is it beyond them to keep the peace?’ The head woman sighed, touched Freda on the arm and asked, ‘Freda, be brave now and tell me how Norfred passed.’
Freda shifted her weight from foot to foot and shook her head. She didn’t want to think about the terrible moment again. She would see her kind Norfred again one day and that was enough for her. They should just leave her alone now. Why couldn’t they leave her alone now?
‘Come on, dear. Save for the bottomless pit, there is nowhere that is deep or dark enough to hide from the Overlords. I need to know, Freda, if you have done anything wrong. Tell me, quickly now.’
‘It was my fault!’ she choked. ‘I didn’t want to work any more, and that made Norfred and Darus argue. I know I am meant to do what the Gang-leader says. But he hurt my Norfred so I hurt him back. I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to.’
‘Shh!’ the head woman said, patting Freda. Her face became stern. ‘Darus hurt Norfred, yes?’
Freda nodded miserably.
Voices erupted around them as a large group of miners carrying flaming torches charged around the bend in the tunnel that led to the women’s chamber. The light dazzled Freda’s eyes and she was forced to turn away.
‘The freak murdered the old man! And killed good Sol too! She must pay!’
‘The rock blight has made her a mad beast. She must be thrown down before she can turn on the rest of us!’
‘Or before she can infect us!’ Mistress Widders squared her shoulders, lifted her chin and deliberately stepped into the mob’s path. She stared them down and they quailed before her.
‘How dare you!’ she shouted at them. Then she pointed an accusing finger at Darus. ‘You! Why didn’t you bring Norfred’s body here for care? You were too busy stirring up your gang, is that it?’
‘There is justice to be done,’ the Gang-leader replied smugly. ‘And we should see to that justice quickly, else we do Norfred’s memory a disservice. Isn’t that right, men?’
‘Ayeee!’ the mob chorused angrily behind him.
‘It is just one man’s word against another’s,’ Mistress Widders said with a shake of her head. ‘Gang-leader or not, man or woman, when there’s a trial one miner’s word has as much weight as any other’s.’
But Darus had gained his position by dint of his shrewdness and was not about to let this woman take the momentum out of his mob. ‘One
word, she says. One
word, she says! But I ask you this, men: is that freak born of any man or woman? You’ve seen how the monster walks through walls! It isn’t natural! Is it natural? Answer me! Is it natural?’
‘Now stand aside, woman, or be put aside!’ Darus said through the din and stepped forward with intent.
Freda panicked as she saw him take that step. He’d moved forward in exactly the same way when he’d struck down Norfred. She could not let him do the same to Mistress Widders,
let him do it!
Releasing a roar of rage, Freda rushed at the mob. How she hated the others now.
‘Freda, no!’ Mistress Widders cried, but she had already been pushed to the side by miners eager to reach the creature they believed to be a killer.
Freda smashed into them, immediately knocking two burly men to the floor. She hammered her fists into chins and torsos, snapping necks and shattering ribs. The point of a pickaxe came down on the back of her head and she staggered, slowing for a moment. A flaming brand was thrust into her face and she was blinded. Blows rained down on her from all sides and she was kept off balance. She was forced onto one knee and had to use her arms to cover her head so she could find a moment’s respite.
It was tempting to give up, to admit that it was her laziness that had killed Norfred. Perhaps she did deserve to be punished. Maybe then it would all stop, all the fear, sadness, pain and ugly words. Maybe then she would stop and become stone and slurry. Maybe she would be thrown into the bottomless pit and she would finally see her beloved Norfred again.
‘Stop it! Shame on you! You’re nothing more than murderers yourselves! Look at yourselves. The Overseer will be told of this!’ someone was shouting. Was it Mistress Widders?
But she had promised Norfred she would go to the top of the mine and find his son. And Mistress Widders had said Norfred was watching over her. She could not bear the thought of letting him down again.
Gritting her teeth so hard that she chipped them, she surged back to her feet and bludgeoned the miners nearest to her to the ground. She clapped her hands on either side of another’s head and crushed his skull. Spraying blood filled the air and covered her face, until the red liquid was running down her facial channels and into her mouth. It tasted good and only increased her hunger.
‘Use your torches!’ Darus cried. ‘Go for her all at once! Now!’
She swept them aside and trod heavily on those unfortunate enough to lose their footing.
Yells and screams echoed and boomed through the mine as if some gigantic beast had been uncovered and the entire place was collapsing. People began to run, and Freda went after them.
She lumbered down tunnels, through the home chamber and then made for the steep incline up which only the sun-metal and Darus were ever allowed. Her lungs were burning painfully now but she did not slow. She hurled herself forward, not caring that chunks of thick skin were torn away on outcroppings or where the walls of the passage narrowed.
‘What in the name of the Overlords is amiss down there?’ called a deep voice from up ahead. ‘Answer me.’
Freda growled and burst up through the opening. A large bearded ogre of a man reared back from her and raised his spear shod with glowing sun-metal to the ready position.
‘What, have the Underlords driven this horror out from among them? What have you done with Gang-leader Darus, fiend?’
Then he lunged forward powerfully with his weapon and impaled her through the shoulder. Her skin was no defence against the terrible burning metal and she bellowed in agony and fear. The passage of the sun-metal blade left energy trails in the air that scored across her vision. Thick black blood bubbled out of her wound and sizzled as it met the spear. Acrid smoke billowed around her and she found it hard to breathe.
The Overseer yanked his weapon free and prepared to plunge it back into her, but she cringed away and fell back into the rock for refuge. She moved through the thickness as quickly as she could and pushed upwards.
She soon began to slow, as exhaustion, blood loss and shock overtook her, but she did not stop climbing. Ever higher. Her head swam, but she dared not stop for fear she would lose her sense of up and down. She had visions of becoming disorientated and ending up back at the lowest levels of the mine, perhaps even plummeting into the bottomless pit and a hell of eternal punishment.
The rock began to change, to become softer, and she realised she must be coming close to the top of the mine and whatever lay beyond. There were strange wriggling things in the soft mulch that replaced the rock, but they seemed harmless. Surely these small things were not the Overlords, were they? What were they then? They burrowed, tunnelled and scurried, but largely ignored her and refused to answer any of the questions she asked.
There was more water here, and the mulch clogged her ears, nose and eyes. She didn’t like it, and it took everything she had not to start thrashing around in panic. She kicked violently and propelled herself further upwards, where it was drier again. At least the wet mulch had soothed her troublesome wound somewhat. Now, there was almost as much air as mulch making up the thickness.
And then she broke through into the largest and brightest cavern she’d ever seen. She glimpsed a large shining disc of sun-metal somewhere far away and high up but was otherwise blinded, even when her eyes were shut as tightly as possible. She felt like she was falling upwards as she left the thickness. She did not understand anything she heard or smelt and her skin felt like it was constantly shifting around independently of the rest of her because it was never the same temperature all over.
She had entered the most terrible place of the Overlords, a place that was a hell of constant warring. So there was hell below and a hell above. She was tempted to return to the limbo of the rock between the two hells, but Mistress Widders had said the tireless miners of the Overlords would eventually find her there. She had promised Norfred she would suffer this upper hell to find his son, so suffer it she would. She now knew that the fear, sadness, pain and ugly words never stopped and were the nature of existence for creatures such as she. Why else would she be allowed such strength and such a thick skin?
Panting hard, Jillan hauled his heavy pack through the dark woods around Godsend. While at the beginning his breath had billowed in the cold air, he could now hardly see it – he realised he was already losing body heat.
, he told himself. But he pushed on urgently nonetheless.
Keeping the walls of the town always in sight, he circled around to the north and found the road. Staying in the trees, he paralleled the way to Saviours’ Paradise until Godsend was well out of sight, and then moved to walk on the wide flagstones.
Don’t think. Ignore the strange sounds in the woods. Don’t imagine horrors for yourself. Keep going. Don’t worry that this is the furthest you’ve ever been from home
. But with that last thought, others came creeping and stealing into his head. Of course, it’s not your home any more, is it? You can never return there again, unless you want to put your parents at even greater risk. They’ll be better off without you in all likelihood … unless they were already being carted off to the town’s punishment chamber by the Heroes, because they had been accused of hiding him somewhere by the Minister and the elders. Should he turn back and throw himself on the town’s mercy in order to save his parents any further pain?