Heymon woke as the first glimmers of light shone through the window beside his bed. As the oldest of his siblings, he slept on his own straw pallet, unlike his nine and eleven-year old brothers, who shared. He had helped build the extension to the house last summer, which had been a proud moment for him. Without the money he had helped his father bring in, the family probably would not have been able to afford the materials.
The village they lived in was not large by anyone’s standards, but the people were fairly well off. Many of the families of people who worked in the mine lived here, on the edge of the forests. They did not rely solely on animals and crop-farming to get by as many in the nearby villages did. All the miners were freemen, so unlike the serfs in poorer areas they weren’t forced to serve anyone. Everyone in Woodstone owned their own land and could do whatever they wished with it. That wasn’t to say they were rich though. They just weren’t struggling to feed themselves, that was all.
Heymon stood up and stretched, curling his toes and feeling some of the dust from the floor rub between them. His ability to fall into a deep sleep in minutes and wake up well-rested on almost any surface was one of his few talents. He’d had sixteen years of practice.
“Time to get ready,” he muttered to himself with a sigh.
He noticed his brothers were still asleep in the corner of the room and smiled slightly. Heymon and his siblings shared the dark hair of their father, and the brothers looked very much alike. One day they would probably join him and his father mining brimstone. The thought was a bittersweet one. Slynn, the owner of the mine, paid a respectable wage, but it wasn’t a job for children, and he didn’t want to imagine his brothers down in the dark caves.
Quietly, Heymon found his mining clothes and put them on. It was very easy to pick up dirt and grime going underground, so his normal clothes and work clothes were distinctly separate. This thick, supposedly white, tunic had been washed the day before but still didn’t look clean as he pulled it on. It had been owned by his father before him, and most likely his father before him, yet was still in one piece.
As he finished dressing, he looked up as his father appeared in the doorway, chewing on a piece of bread, then wiping his mouth with hands which had wielded many shovels, and heaved too many picks down in the mine. Dain Hardwood was a big man, with a strong jaw, and arm muscles built up from many years of hard labour which could crush a man’s head between them. But his eyes were kind, and Heymon looked up to him, for not just because of his height, which Heymon was fast catching up with.
“Are you ready to go?” asked Dain in a rough whisper, looking over and checking on his other two sons.
“As soon as I’ve had a bite to eat,” smiled Heymon, walking through to the adjoining kitchen to find something.
They walked together to the mines, just as the village began to come to life around them. Windows were thrown open as the sky brightened to become a sunny morning, and other miners said their goodbyes to their families and joined them on the dirt road. Many of them came up to Dain to greet him and say a few words. Heymon tried to imagine himself doing the same thing with his son in twenty years or so. It was difficult to picture. For that he would need a wife as well, which wasn’t something which would be arranged any time soon. There was still plenty of time for all that. It was unusual for women in the village to marry at his age, especially poorer ones, as they were needed to help provide for their families. Still, there was a girl he had spoken to a couple of times at the market, about the same age, and he did wonder whether she would one day be the mother of his children.
“Why are you so quiet today?” asked his father, knocking him out of his daydream.
“No reason,” he shrugged. “I was just wondering about the mines, and whether I would have children who worked in them as well.”
“You’d need someone who would have your children first,” laughed Dain, before his expression sobered a little. “The mines will outlive us all, I imagine. They’ll stay open so long as the castle wants its hellfire. There will always be someone who wants to deprive the Farhorns of their crown, or think they can risk raiding the odd ship, and only a fool wouldn’t make himself ready for when that time comes. Peace never lasts. If the mines don’t stay open then someone will see an opportunity to attack.”
“Does the hellfire matter that much for war?” asked Heymon sceptically. “I know they like to shout about it but it seems like it’s mainly for show.”
“My great-grandfather was in the Royal Fleet when they fought those Eastern bastards, and it won the battle,” Dain reminded him, with authority. “Forget about treaties and agreements, nowhere else has a weapon like it, and I guarantee you that’s all that’s stopping them from turning around again and stabbing us in the back.”
Heymon let the subject drop. His father liked to voice his opinion on the Kingdoms’ politics, and Heymon didn’t know enough to contradict him if he was wrong. They moved onto more light-hearted conversation, while inside Heymon wondered if what his father said was true. Was peace really so impossible?
They were getting closer now, and could see the smoke rising from the furnaces ahead. He felt the familiar feelings of fear creep up on him as the sulphurous smell of the mine reached him. He should be used to it by now, but despite never having been in an incident, Heymon always felt that the mines had this aura of danger about them, as if they could strike down the miners at any time.
They reached the entrance to the mine, which was unguarded. The miners were relied on to police themselves in terms of theft, but even if somebody did steal something, there were few to sell it to, as Slynn sold the majority directly to the King, and the King obviously wouldn’t buy from thieves. They walked through to pick up their tools, shoes sticking in the wet dirt. Heymon could sense something was wrong as soon as they reached the tool rack. Several men were gathered around in deep conversation and were glancing around as if fearful of being overheard, despite there being none of Slynn’s men within earshot. One was a man who Heymon recognised. He’d taken a job at the same time Heymon had joined. He saw his father’s face had changed. It was wary. Dain approached to find out what was happening, and Heymon followed, feeling apprehensive.
“Have you heard?” demanded Parry, a long-standing family friend, whose face was red with rage as he approached. Dain shook his head.
“Slynn sent a man. The money-grabbing leech wants to bleed us dry. He’s cutting everyone’s pay by almost half, miners, smelters, everyone.”
Dain’s face went grim, and Heymon’s heart sank. This was bad. They were getting by alright at the moment, but not everyone had two family members working the mines, and it was an unpredictable job. They were paid based on the amount of brimstone they brought in, so if a vein ran dry then conditions could be hard until a new one was excavated. Many families had chickens and grew a few vegetables at home but that didn’t come close to making up for this loss. His insides were hot with anger at the man who was doing this. How could this be allowed?
“Is the messenger still here?” asked Dain slowly, in what was clearly a forcibly controlled voice.
“No, he didn’t stay long,” spat Parry. “But it can’t be just this mine either. I’ll bet every one Slynn owns is getting the same. We can’t let this happen, or we’ll starve come winter. The other mine owners will probably follow his lead as well. We need to spread the word, and after work if we have enough people then we go to the brimstone stores where the mines are managed to complain. If there are enough of us, then he has to change his mind. Elgar here thinks it will work, and claims he can definitely convince a few others. I assume you’re with us?”
Parry glanced briefly at Heymon, before fixing his stare on Dain, the real decision maker. His father was respected here, and his opinion meant something. There was a tense pause.
“There can’t be any violence,” said Dain finally. “We can’t force Slynn to change his mind, but if we threaten to stop working then the King will have to intervene. If we act like rebels, then they’ll just crush us and replace us. We need to be the good guys, and there need to be too many of us to brush off. If it’s possible, once we’ve rallied people here someone should go to the mines Slynn doesn’t own. If he can get away with it, other mine owners will do the same, so it’s as vital for them as it is us. If some of them can join our march it will give us all the more bargaining power.”
Parry nodded, grinning devilishly under his beard.
“We’ll show them that they can’t get away with this,” hissed Parry, to the group. “We’re freemen, not slaves!”
“Agreed,” said Dain, grabbing a pickaxe. “Now let’s get to work and convince the rest of them.”
Heymon had been quiet for all of this, watching the events unfold in front of him while mulling it all over in his head.
“Listen Heymon, I understand you might not want to get involved in this, and it could turn nasty, so if you don’t want-”
“I’m in all the way,” interrupted Heymon firmly. “It’s disgusting for them to treat us like slaves. We have to do something to try to stop it.”
His father smiled grimly and clapped him on the back.
“Good,” he said. “Now let’s get down there and do some real work.”
Heymon nodded, and picked up one of the wooden poles, which had a large wicker basket at each end, and balanced it across his shoulders. His job was to carry the chunks of rock which the miners broke off from the bottom of the tunnels up to the top where the brimstone could be properly extracted. It was hard work on his back, carrying all that weight, but he could feel himself getting stronger from it every day.
Heymon headed down into gloom to begin the hard day’s work, knowing that while he walked up and down carrying heavy loads, his father and his friends were organising a protest. He could feel an unusual stir in the air as he passed burly men hacking at the walls. Something exciting was happening, something big. As far as he knew there hadn’t been an organized protest like this that wasn’t an outright rebellion, and they never ended well. If Slynn refused, he wasn’t sure what the plan was. Taking on the King’s army would be madness, but surely the King wouldn’t send troops against them just for a protest. They would have a chance to back down before things got violent.
“Anyone down in the lower tunnels?” asked Heymon, noticing a man he knew who had joined the mines recently, a man named Merek. Heymon had the job of fetching from the bottom, so he always went as deep as possible first to pick up whatever there was and then fill up the basket on the way up, so that he didn’t waste energy walking down with a load.
“Nay, wouldn’t say so, we’re the last,” he replied amiably. “Got a fresh load for you just here.”
He gestured to a small pile of rubble he and another man had been working on. Heymon came over, setting down the carrier and loading it up with the yellow rock. The dampness of the walls in the morning, visible by the light of the flickering torches mounted on the walls, made it seem as if the grey wall was oozing yellow blood from open wounds. He was in one of the deepest tunnels now, and it was almost as if he could feel the rock above weighing down on him. The air and the surface around him felt damp. He had hated it down here when he had first started, but he was getting used to it.
With the baskets laden, he hefted the pole across his shoulders, not looking forwards to the trek back up the slope, and stepped out ahead of Merek to make his way back to the top. But as the boy balanced the heavy load, he put his foot down on something loose and his foot slipped. As he tumbled, Merek reached out to grab him, but Heymon had momentum and Merek only succeeded in getting himself hit by a heavy basket and fell too, crashing down beside Heymon.
Heymon twisted while sliding, spotting one of the wooden supports. As he passed it, pushed the basket of brimstone past it and used the pole to jerk himself to a halt. He checked himself over. He was slightly bruised but alright. He breathed out with some relief, putting a hand against the large wooden beam which linked into a set of wooden struts on the ceiling.
Merek, who had stopped below him, dusted himself off and looked up at him, raising his eyebrows. Heymon laughed.
“You probably should leave that beam alone,” said the man, looking up at where it joined the ceiling, “I think I heard it creak.”
“I didn’t hear it,” said Heymon, feeling a spike of nervousness at realising he had crashed into the main support. He looked up, and heard a cracking, rumbling sound above him.
“Move!” yelled Merek.
Heymon tried to scramble to his feet, as the wooden supports at the top began to splinter, and all of a sudden the ceiling cracked open. He thought of his parents, and his brothers, and the imaginary family of his that had crossed his mind earlier. He prayed that he would make it back to them, but as he got to his feet he couldn’t resist looking up to acknowledge the danger for himself, and watched as the rift above his head opened and a terrifying mass filled his vision as the world fell in on him.