Dusk crawled into the sky, throwing its hazy cloak over sky and land. A cold evening breeze rode in on its coat tails.
14 year old Evvie shivered in her threadbare coat, crouching behind the rocks at the entrance to the mine. Cramps licked her calves with their hot silky tongues, curling the tip around a tendon here and there. She shuffled her blistered feet in her too big shoes, cracking her knobbly right knee against a rock.
A sudden gust blasted through the peeping hole, throwing grit in her eyes. She teetered back and bit the inside of her cheek. Tears tracked down her dirty cheeks. She blinked, stepped back up to the peeping hole and peered at the mine entrance through a misty haze.
She twitched as she heard the familiar rumble of the coal cart straining up the tracks.
“Any moment now…..”
“Shut up Baidean. You know Grandpa taught us sound carries on the wind. Do you want to go to the dungeons?”
Evvie ignored Baidean’s whimper and turned to the raggedy bunch of children behind her, putting her finger to her lips. They all froze under the fierce look she gave them before she turned back to the peeping hole.
Rail thin men, nothing but sinew and bone, appeared at the mouth of the entrance, their bodies straining forward, against the thick ropes lashed to the overloaded cart of coal. Skankelor’s men marched beside them, shouting insults, ready to crack a whip.
Her hands fisted at her side, a red hot fury of hatred flushed through Evvie as she watched her father stumble. A guard booted him in the side, hooting with laughter. “Come on teacher man. You need to exercise your wimpy muscles. Brains are a waste.”
She grabbed Baidean as he rushed past her, clamping a hand over his mouth. “You will be caught for naught and end up in the mine yourself, now hush and stay still”, she admonished.
She watched as her father struggled back onto his feet, re-taking his place and started pulling with the other prisoners. “We will still make men out of you learned mules”, another guard jeered. Her heart shriveled in her chest as she looked at the man who taught them to read and write and now has been imprisoned for such impudence since Skankelor became the Over Lord of Vistarion.
She waited until the cart, prisoners and guards teetered around the bend, before beckoning the children forward. She kept watch as they each filled a sack with the coal droppings alongside the track, before sending them back down to their homes in the village.
“Baidean, tell Granna I will be down later.”
“But dark is falling fast Evvie.”
“Well then get on with it before you lose your way and wander into a guard!”
She watched Baidean running down the hill. “At least some hearth’s will have a fire to cook what meagre food we have”.
She gripped the vial in her pocket, followed the tracks down to the coal yard, passing it, and moving to the prison camp next to it. She slipped past the guards all huddled around a fire in their guard hut. She stopped at the fifth fence pole away from the hut, bent down, and removed the loose stone hiding the burrow under the fence.
Her heart hammered in her chest as a loose wire snagged her coat. She tore it loose and raced to the prisoner huts, reaching the one in which her Da was kept. She willed herself into a calm, conjured a mental message, starting the magical chant calling her Da. The door to the hut opened a crack, straining against the locking chain. A skeletal arm reached out and she placed the vial in the open palm, closing her Da’s fingers around the vial, dropping a kiss on his closed fist. “Granna said it will soothe the pain and give you energy,” she whispered. A tired sigh all the answer she got.
Tears burnt in her throat as she straightened up. She peeked around the corner. The moon, one day to the full, splashed its bright light over the bare prison grounds. Her eyes flicked to the guard hut. She raced back to the burrow. The guard hut’s door banged open. She slid into the burrow. Footsteps crunched towards her. Her pulse set off at a wild gallop in her temples. Grit dropped into the burrow as the footsteps went past. The footsteps stopped. She froze. She heard splashing. A foul stench of ammoniac filled her nostrils, threatening to gag her. She pinched her nose, inhaling shallow breaths through her mouth.
The footsteps crunched back to the hut. She heard the door bang shut and scurried out of the burrow. Her nerves on fire, she rolled the stone back into the opening, and ran for the village, coming to a stop at its edge.
She took a deep breath, scanning the road into the village. Her spine prickled. She skulked around the edges and approached Granna’s hut from the back. The back door hung open, half torn off its hinges. She crept closer. The acrid smell of burning assaulted her nostrils. Fear rose and flapped its black wings. Throwing all caution to the wind she ran into the hut. Her eyes snapped to the heap of rags smouldering in the hearth.
She grabbed a poker, pushing at the rags. “GRANNA!!!!! Oh no, no, no. How could they do this to you!”
She pulled the body out of the hearth. She wheezed as hysteria’s hand of steel closed around her throat. Her hands shook as she scrabbled and found the candle on the ledge above the hearth. She lit the pith in the smoldering hearth. She stuck it in its holder, scanning Granna’s body. She set it on the floor next to the body, her fingers checking for a pulse. Nothing.
Numbness enfolded her in its cloak as she stood up. She held the candle above her head, surveying the havoc inside the hut. “Baidean?”
Her mind drifted back to her conversation with Granna a week earlier.
“Remember when I am gone you are the next in line. You have the power to wake the Humming Bird and free our people.”
“But why don’t you do it now Granna, why wait? It is stupid. Everyone is suffering except for the traitors.”
“Patience my child, patience. Everything will come to pass when the time is right.”
A streak of guilt thrummed through her as she remembered pushing past Granna, leaving the hut in a sulk.
She sunk to her haunches, pushing aside the mess to the left side of the hearth. She set down the candle and reached for the poker, levering the loose floor board.
“Enough is enough. This is a declaration of war.”
“Nothing is gained in anger my darling child,” Granna’s voice whispered in her mind.
She took the lead box out of its hiding place and opened it. The Humming Bird gleamed in all its golden glory, its ruby red eye sparkling. A tear drop fell from her eye, splashing the Humming Bird. It buzzed and vibrated. She lifted it out of the box and fastened the necklace around her neck, careful to hide it inside her bodice. She replaced the box in the hole, replacing the loose floor board and covered it with debris.
Shouts erupted outside the hut. She stood up, steeling herself and walked out the hole that used to be the front door. Her eyes flicked over the torch carrying crowd, mainly made up of the traitors in the village, a few fence sitters skulking around the edges.
“There she is! Get her!” Orpah the baker’s daughter screeched.
Her heart fluttered in her chest as three of Skangelor’s minions moved forward, led by Pithery. She steeled herself, walked down the two stone steps coming to a standstill before Pithery.
“Take me to your Master then.”
Pithery grunted something unintelligible, grabbing her right wrist and dragged her through the jeering crowd parting in front of them to the Castle on the coal hill. They climbed the steps, Pithery hacking and coughing spitting black phleghm. The warders at the door to the throne chamber opened the humungous wooden steel banded doors.
They entered the dimly lit throne room, a bright flare of torches lighting Skankelor reclining on his throne. Pithery grabbed her by the scruff of her neck and forced her down to her knees at the base of the stairs leading to the throne chair. She refused to bow her head, staring at Skankelor.
“Here she is My Lord Skankelor.”
Claustrophobia threatened to drown her senses as the heat in the room engulfed her, the air tinged with a sour undertone. The Humming Bird fluttered against her breastbone.
A smirk grazed Skankelor’s fleshy lips. Holding the snake headed staff in his left hand, he scratched at his yellowing teeth with a horny finger nail.
“A stubborn witch girl I see. They say you divined gold in the coal mine?”
Mutinous she stared at him, her distaste growing with fervor.
“Cat got your tongue?”
She pressed her left hand to the Humming Bird under her bodice.
“Bring me the boy!” A disturbance to her right. A prison guard leading Baidean forward, a studded dog collar around his neck. His whimpers tore at her soul.
“Wait. I will only speak and tell you of what you want if you let the boy go.”
Skankelor’s ample belly shook as he threw back his head in uproarious laughter. Around the throne chamber everyone stood frozen. Skankelor shook his head, cleared his throat and spat a green blob of phlegm landing just short of her feet. Evvie looked at Baidean, an arm’s length to her right. The Humming Bird thrummed stronger.
Skankelor leaned back on his throne. “Take the boy back to the dungeon.”
“Yesss,” her mind whispered. The Humming Bird stilled.
She calculated. The dungeon was away from the Castle and Baidean would be out of harm’s way.
“So witch – where is the gold,” Skankelor roared.
She got up from her knees, straightening her shoulders. She lifted the Humming Bird out of her bodice and pulled the necklace over her head. She spun the necklace around her left index finger letting the Humming Bird fly. The guards cowered. Skankelor was blinded. She channeled her fury through the Humming Bird, sending sparks into the air. The gasses from the mine underneath rose up to meet the sparks. She fisted her right hand, pushed it up into the air and opened it.
Bigger sparks bolted through the air, igniting Skankelor’s robes. His snake staff hissed and spat, disappearing into smoke. Skankelor slapped at the sparks and stamped his feet. A hole opened underneath his throne, swallowing him.