Run. Don't look back. Faster, through the thick brush; Just have to get away; Away from what she came from, who she had become, all lay far behind her struggling steps. Away she had flown, like a dove from a trap, free was her spirit if she could get there by dawn. Twelve years since she had been taken; Twelve years forced to hard labor, drowned in the unknown, broken in every way, stripped of dignity, clothed in what they threw at her, sleeping chained to the floor, cold and damp.
She slept only to wake in the ever-present hell she had been ensnared in. Out to the machines, to shovel the coal into the furnace that feed them. Shoveling the coal in, giving power to the unfeeling engines that raged on above her head. Fill the shovel, empty it, drive, and lift, breath to hour, day to week, month to year.
Those around her were like her, depressed, gray souls, clothed in rags, governed by laws of fear. None looked up from their work, no one spoke a word, forced to act as less then animals, to be cold as ice to all that was about them. Those who gave in to the temptation of seeing another face were beaten to the edge of life. Most were criminals, resigned to slavery. But those who were of the conquered group were to be pitied. Living out their lives in the pit, that dark damp hole feeding those machines that made life comfortable for the ones living above; the ones who were still called people.
Bells commanded; great fierce bells of iron. They rudely woke, then called to eat, clanged on through work, and rang on in dissonant din until, with singular mercy, they ceased. It would haunt her; follow her till she died. The clamour brought with it a knot that would twist, tighten, and choke the hope out of them. Even when the silence of the sleeping period came, she heard the tenor of the bells in her own labored breath.
Three special bells sometimes rang, all to often together; One signified that a machine had malfunctioned, another would inform that a death had occurred, and the last was a cackling siren to hunt the escaped. Great sorrow awaited those who were caught, better to die in the chase then to be brought back alive.
Most cursed where those attractive to the people, for they became objects to be used for pleasure and entertainment. The people descended, clean faced and proud, and took any that they liked. She had lost count of those who had taken her. Made to dance while they sniggered, or ignored while they ate, or leered at as she stood flaking filth, then discarded, cast back to the pit to sleep chained to a stone floor until the bells took up their dire anthem.
But at least they had never washed her. The ones who came with clean bodies and shining chains back to the coal pit sobbed longest in the silence. Often they were taken again and again, always returning free of the soot, until they returned no more.
He was waiting when the bells ceased. The boots ground the gravel to dust as he slowly stepped over each shackle, closer and closer to her chain. Too tired to dread, she simply wondered in a daze if he would pass her by. She heard a clink and a skick of a lock opening nearby. Then a tug on her wrists, and she took a shuddering breath, then rose, and followed.
They trudged, chains swinging heavily between her hands and his, to the grate floored lift. Here they slapped her, not in punishment, she thought, but to dislodge some of the grime. It still felt like an insult, but it was the only human contact she was allowed, and she braced herself with something like anticipation. But this time the blows did not land. Was her captor as tired as she? Perhaps a slave himself, or negligent enough to bring a muck spalling pit slave un-beaten into the people's realm. Or worse, she thought, and found new depths through which her heart could sink.
The room he brought her to was bare. Where were the decorations? The throbbing music or chirping of caged birds? The smell of rich foods, always denied to her, or scent of incense and sulfur? Confused, she forgot herself, and glanced away from her feet.
And straight into his eyes.
A trap! She cringed, and her gaze locked on the floor again. She would be beaten now, surely. Or cut. Or cleaned. Her eyes began to burn as hot tears muddied her dust caked eyes.
"Your name." he commanded, but a moment later added "Please." She struggled to control her breathing, and her voice cracked as she replied, "1256wr."
"Yes, but I want your real name."
Her real name? How could he ask that of her? She had already given them a reason to be cruel, but what sick tortures would they devise with her real name? How could he have looked into her eyes? Though how long had it been since she had seen annother's eyes? His eyes, dark, like a deep blackness of mystery. What was lurking in those eyes to bring such questions? The last people who cared about her name had died; burned to death in the house she grew up in. She could still hear their screams of pain as she was tied and carried away. Long in the distance of her mind she could still remember her father calling her home for supper. "Flora, Flora, ah Flora, do you know how much I love you?"
She considered lying, but they would know. They always knew when you lied. Yet how could she speak the name, that touchstone of all that was lost to her now. These people would find some way to sully even that. But she had been silent for too long, and soon would be found defiant, so she ground out the name as ugly as she could make it, to match herself.
"Frowlah" he repeated. "Well, I suppose it suits you." and then "Forgive me, that was cruel. How numb we all are."
She stole another glance at him. Those dark eyes, looking not at her body, but at her face, filled with some unknown emotion, questions tucked into the corners.
"How long have you been here?" he asked.
"Twelve years" she replied.
"I am sorry", he blurted out. "For all of this."
Thoroughly confused Flora stood there not knowing what to do. None of the others had ever acted human toward her. Stiff and cold, they stole that bit of her mother, that precious warming glow that they had no true right to, and treated it with tolerance, as if a second hand coat, like an itch just out of reach.
But this one seemed less, somehow. More vulnerable. Cruelty that she took for courage filled her and she spoke out, "What are you doing? Have you brought me here to mock me?" Better to face the pain than to feel less human then ever; though fear had arrived as well, but only sat in a small curve of her soul, making not a sound.
"Frowlah, I want to help you!"
She laughed at him; it was the last thing she was ready for. Was this some sick mind game he had conjured up to bring her into submission without force? They were all hostile and heartless, Eyes at a great distance. He is just like the rest of them. He had probably courted the princess of the realm, and been mocked, and now had come for 1256wr to feel superior and find solace in the misery of another; misery deeper than anything he had ever feared.
Again he repeated, "Truly I mean it, I want to get you out."
Hope filled her eyes with a soft glow. Out. To be free from the black pit of pain; To run in the fields, feel the ocean against her legs; To taste the sun rays as they fall from the sky. To watch the sun set over the hills as the stars dance in her absence.
Blinking back into reality she was hit with the fact that he could be lying, testing. Her face dropped.
He reassured her, "I have maps. I can make it so they cannot track you. I can get you to the gates."
"Why would you help a lesser being?" she demanded of her toes.
"I want to change things. I want to do what's right. There is something new inside me and I don't know what it is but I feel like I can truly see for the first time in my life. I see that the red that I thought was red is green."
She found herself staring at him. She was lost, not knowing what to think; Lost in the strangeness of the situation. She longed for freedom, but feared a trap. She could commit to nothing, resist nothing, choose nothing. Strength left her, and she fell to her knees, hiding her face in her hands. It did not matter what she chose. So she spoke the only truth she was sure of any more; The twelve year truth of uncounted spades full of black rock, of misery and death and defiance answered by silence.
"I am utterly at your mercy."
He fed her. Good food like she had forgotten; That eased the awful knot in her stomach. They sat at the table in silence, and he watched her while she ate. It made her uncomfortable.
"Go away." she told him. "Don't you have your own food?"
"Listen. We don't have long. Finish eating, and then..."
She withdrew her hands from the plate, "And then what?"
"No, don't stop, listen, here's the plan," But she did not begin eating again, and he went on, "I have to get your chains off, and replace them with fake ones. The chains are how they find you. The ones I'll give you are hollow, and have a little food in them, and maps, and a way to make fire. You can take them off once you are outside the gates, but until then you have to leave them on, understand? You have to pretend they are heavy and not take them off. What are you doing? Eat!"
But she did not eat. She had begun to shake. Her voice quivered as she said "But how will we get to the gate? Because everyone will know I belong in the pit."
"No, you'll be with me. I'll go with you that far."
"But they will know you're not taking me back."
"They would if you were all covered in soot..." and she did not hear what he said next because someone had begun to wail, and her head was shaking violently back and forth, and she felt the grit in her hair whipping her face as her voice rose to a scream and she cried out,
"No! No! No! Don't wash me! Don't do it! The clean ones can't stop crying! No!" And her voice broke into a silent scream and she crossed her arms across her chest and her eyes opened wide in the hopes that this was a dream but it was no dream and the floor came up to meet her and she fell among the slow black snow of her distress and sobbed until she could sob no more.
"I'm so sorry. For all of this." he said into the silence, "But I do not know any other way."
She lay staring at nothing. At length, she said "Is this how you do it? I always wondered. Is this. How you people break us?"
"I do not know. But we are out of time. Will you do as I ask?"
"I have no choice."
"You have this choice. I will send you, filthy, back to the pit if you prefer." he said sadly.
"Or you can wash..." he began.
And now with growing anger, "Or I can remove your chains, and set you loose, and you will be found before you have..."
"No. No no! None of those!"
"Or..." he said with a sigh, "I can kill you. It is release in a way."
"No." and then almost in a whisper, and meeting his eyes once more, "Please don't kill me."
And he said nothing, but touched the wall, and water began to fall from one corner of the ceiling, and she began to cry again, but rose as well.
"I will return," he said, "very soon, with the false chains. Remove your old clothes, and wash. There are new clothes on the table."
And then he was gone, and Flora stared at the droplets, and each seemed to fall forever. She found herself divesting of her rags, and washing the particles from her skin in the warm water. And the stream ran black from her hair as years flowed away. And it ran clear off the chains from her wrists. She saw her hands, calloused and thin.
Then suddenly she heard the door open and startled. She huddled against the wall as he came in. But he was not looking at her, and seemed to speak to the far wall when he said "Are you dressed?"
"A dress?" she asked, confused.
"Do you have clothing on? No? Quickly! Put them on!" and one hand-full of chains fell to his side while the other leaned against the wall as he waited by the door.
The sound of the water ceased as she pulled the clean cloth over her head, and the clatter of the chain was loud as she tied the waist-band.
"Here." he said, and touched the bands around her wrists with something in his hand, and they fell away, and she was startled for a moment at the lightness of her arms until he placed the new ones on her, and showed her how to remove them, and then they were walking briskly through the halls, and corridors, and she did not understand anything that she saw until they came to the gate and she saw something which she could hardly recognize.
It was a light of her stolen childhood. A brilliance of growing things. The color green. And the sky above, clear and strong and blue, and the sun just dipping below the horizon.
And she knew what she should do now, and knew that no force could detain her any longer. They might catch her, but they would have to kill her, because she would never be parted from the colors or the light again.
"Go quickly." He said, and handed her the chain.
"Come with me." She answered.
"There are others who need me." He said.
"I need you." she replied, and made a shackle of her hand about his wrist.
Away they flew, like two doves from a trap.
Free were their spirits by the break of the dawn.