Epilogue - The Salt Mines
Life was cruel in the mines, more so for Cora Vida than for most - women so rarely found their way into the cavernous pits. She was taxed with as much work as any of the men in the mines. The same work, the same food, the same drink. Much of one, and far too little of the others.
The name Vida was something her father had chosen for her. It wasn’t a last name, as her family would never have status enough to afford one. It was a second name – the people in her village would called her Vida as much as they called her Cora. She believed they did this because of the uncanny similarity she’d heard of between herself and her mother, who died in the throes of childbirth.
The gasses that filled her lungs in the mine were bitter compared to the light, filling air she knew lingered just a short climb above her, but she kept working. She had to - they all had to.
The mines were a wicked place. It had been days since she’d seen more light than that which cascaded vaguely through the small, narrow hole above her.
Cora swung her pickaxe, over and over, repeating the motion as she had for the better part of the past two days. Chunks of ore and mineral were struck off, much as sinew would be hacked away by a knight - the type of person she’d hoped to be.
She remembered her wondrous, childhood days. The small town of Teek’s Hollow had been a loving place. Her father, a poor man forced to work the land for the potatoes it bore precariously, but the money rarely came to them. The king demanded their potatoes and, since Teek’s Hollow was so near to the capital, her father was kindly forced to supply the king with potatoes.
Cora never met the king - only sentinels, sent not to her father, but to the mayor of Teek’s Hollow, Yorris Relos, a savage man who cared little for the people in his town. She was certain Yorris Relos kept most of the money the sentinels delivered for her family. She was sure the king was paying more than three gold pieces for each order of potatoes, but she had no way to prove it. No one would believe her.
She always hoped that one of the sentinels - men in glorious, bronze armour with a cudgel at their sides. Their armour always finely kept, polished and maintained. Yet never did they question why the foppish mayor kept having finer and finer clothing, or why the potato farmer seemed dirtier and more unkempt with each passing week.
Yorris Relos was the reason she had been sent to the mines, though, a kitchen knife had also played an integral role. In her head, Cora could see the beautiful city that raised her so kindly. The tendrils of the Cubs River, diverging and straying outward from the lake of wolves were vivid to her. The sound in her head of croaking frogs and the faint noise of them plunging into the water could nearly alleviate the noise of pickaxes clambering down into the minerals before her.
The view of her house, and her neighbors homes with their straw roofs and pale wood walls painted themselves on the cavernous walls before her, the shortly cut grass, speckled with tulips and dandelions surrounding it. The waterwheel, built into the side of her house, creaked quietly as she hammered her pickaxe away.
“Oi, girl,” a brutish voice from behind her choked out. She felt bad for considering his to be a brutish voice, as she was sure he faced just as poor a fate by being sent to the mines. He had a higher position than her, though, and for that she resented him. He was the delivery boy - bringing food every six hours and hauling away the chips and shards she created every two.
His arrival now meant that her third food for the day would arrive only two hours from then, and with that she would be allowed to retreat to her cold, unpadded cot behind her. It was little more than a plain, linen cloth, folded over and sewn shut.
As the man puttered away sweeping up the shards she’d hacked away, Cora was given a drink from a water skin, drinking deeply to maintain her power to work.
“Alright there, potato girl,” the man said. “Wash up your face a bit - you’re not nearly as pretty.” He laughed, and Cora was reassured in her previous belief of his brutishness.
As she rubbed her hand through her hair - a hand, made far whiter by the dust surrounding her - she could feel grit covering much of it. She wondered how much lighter her already blonde hair had become. She was sure if she looked at reflection she wouldn’t recognize her own features. Her eyes had been blue, she remembered that, but the time she’d spent in the mine - a time she lost track of after counting to her eighty seventh day. It had been nearly twice that by this point.
She just had to keep moving for a little bit longer. The ever fading light from the crack above her reaffirmed this belief in her, and so she droned on as she had for the countless days that came before.
It was her fourth day in the pit now, though, and she knew it. Workers were sent into the mine itself for five days at a time, then given three days above ground to rest. She knew that she’d only have to sleep once more in the mine, eat thrice more, and then she was free for her time off. Free to linger above ground, talk to other souls who’d been given time off.
She would see Aero again, a man from Troutson she’d grown fond of in her time at the mines. He worked far away from her - halfway down the long stretch of rock that encompassed her life.
During her three days off, the privileged crew would be in the pits working. They were blessed, the workers who didn’t think of revolt or think of the terrible situation of their life. They worked in the pits for shorter times, and as such those who were on Cora’s shift dreamed of being them. They didn’t consider revolt or uprising, they focused only on forward advancement - something none of them had seen happen.
The elderly workers who spent their time now fraternizing in bunkers above ground, rarely discussing work for favour of talking about the bitter liquor they brewed. The old men who replaced her every fifth day paid little mind to the work they did. Cora wondered often whether they truly worked when they were sent below ground.
On one of her nights off, she walked past the hole in the ground she had watched the other men descend into. She heard singing. Not jovial singing to maintain spirits while doing menial work, but drunken singing, as crude in execution as it was in language.
She had planned to tell Aero about this, but that same night Aero mentioned to her that a slag collector had complimented him on his work, and mentioned he may be promoted soon. The untampered joy she’d seen on Aero’s face made her reconsider her desire to crush the spirits of all she worked with – of all she knew. Cora carries the burden still – the burden of an unloving job.
As she reflected on that night, she became lost in thought. Though she kept working, soon she heard the nearing cart of the slag collector who’d come, what seemed to be, only a few minutes earlier.
“Shift’s over,” he said to her with no kindness on his tongue. She never received compliments or fantasies of promotion. She received only hostility and curtness – it was the case for all the murderers who’d been sent to the pits.
She wished she could feel justified in the crime she committed. Her target had been the crooked mayor of Teek’s Hollow, Yorris Relos, the bastard who had over taxed and over worked Cora’s family. On the day she assaulted his keep, however, the person who received the cold end of her daggers was not the fat man who hoarded the money her parent’s worked for, but his child and wife. She took two lives that day, and she was still trying to accept that fact.
Cora Vida had no trial, and without trial, she had little chance to atone for her crime. Each day, each hour, each minute of work she did dwindled down to her, arguing with an unrelenting force within her mind and defending her actions for what they could have resulted in. She reached the point of arguing purely with herself and losing, finding it more and more difficult with each swing of the pickaxe to convince herself the hell she was in was worth the lives she came so close to bettering. Cora was no martyr.
She climbed out of the pit. The bleak ground surrounding her, riddled with soot and the remains of long dead trees in the distance, was illuminated purely by the powerful light from the stars, and the moonlight reflecting off the vast ocean before her. At least hell has a good view, she thought as she descended a slight hill toward her cabin. She turned into it, walking to the corner behind the fake panel of a cabinet and pulled out a large bottle of mead. Most of the full time slaves hid their possessions – they knew that the replacement workers spent much of their days rummaging through the belongings of others.
She was quite confident they had yet to find her fake panel, or that they had found it and were disappointed over how little Cora felt was necessary to keep for herself. Her hideaway held only a few bottles of liquor, brewed at the mine, and a small collection of paper. They were receipts she couldn’t read for the potatoes her family had never been paid for. She hoped one day to face the king with them, but knew such a day would never likely come.
She stepped outside with the large bottle in her hand, ceremoniously swigging from it as she watched the replacement workers clambering into the pits with their pick axes at their sides. It was a beautiful night, though, of course the first night out of the pit was always beautiful. Even if it rained, at least the rain was real – the pit seemed so fake to her. The moonlight that came down to the ground around her illuminated everything in a twilight hue. As she looked to the north, she saw the twilight turn green, cascading and refracting in an odd mist that approached her. She remained outside watching as the mist rolled in. Quicker and quicker it came, descending into the holes of the mine and spreading out into the city surrounding it.
She walked forward, through the mist, and could begin to hear the voices of the workers who had replaced her, singing a jovial tune.
“O’ I ‘ad a girl in Rainhome,
Her eyes were cruel you see.
And though I looked only for love,
There wasn’t much for me.
When night came down,
So did a frown and as she looked to me.
She chased me away,
From where I lay
For her friends, too, lay with me!” The song concluded with a bought of brazen laughter from the man’s friends.
She sat near to the base of the mine, listening to the men talk. For a group of elders – people she’d been told to respect – they were far more perverse than the youthful workers she knew. They spoke only of women and the physical components thereof, as well as men who had an uncanny knack for coercing said women to reveal such components.
“Let’s swing the axes for a while!” one of the men shouted. She knew none of their names. She heard the men grumbling and walking around, likely to grab the axes to pretend they were working.
“Why is it so misty?” One man asked. “I thought Tennact said tonight would be clear. And why’s the mist down here?”
“I don’t know, you git, just keep working.” Another replied, before being greeted with some laughter from his friends.
One man began to cough and let out a cry of horror. Quickly a cacophony of fearful shouts filled the air around Cora, and she raced over to the top of the crack to look down. The mist lit up the mine beneath well.
As she looked down, she saw all the men, on the ground writhing. Their faces and arms were filled with pustules, bursting and reforming in rapid succession. A chorus of bats flew out beside her head.
Far beneath her, at the bottom of the ladder where the dead men writhed, she saw a set of dark, yellow eyes, larger than her own head, attached to a body, coated in dark grey hair. The hair stretched out over stoney, sleek wings which outstretched as she lookd.
She fell backwards as the beast flew up into the night’s air. Its body was long and sleek, and as it flew over her own house, she noted it to be about the same size. A house she knew to be seven feet long, and five feet wide. A house far too small, but an animal equally too large.
In a strange way, she recognized it. There were monsters in the mines – they’d all seen them, in fleeting moments and in the corners of their eyes. She’d never seen a monster so fleshed out, but she was certain she’d seen a stone creature of that formation in the mines. And now, as it flew, black as night, she felt every fear she’d ever known flock back to her.
It let out a wry screech as it flew off into the nearby forests to the south, leaving only the sounds of the men in the pit, still screaming as they died.
As Cora got up to run to her cabin, she found herself surrounded by mages.
“What have you done to the higher workers?” Asked Lord Mage Velleon, a man in the latter portion of his life. His lack of hair was a worthwhile sacrifice to Cora for the knowledge it allowed the head beneath it to contain.
“I did nothing. The mist fell into the cracks of the mine, a… and some bats and that beast flew out. It’s one of the ones… One of the ones the men see in the mines, when the work is long and the breaks are short. It’s…” She pointed in the direction the large bat like creature had flown, but there was nothing to see.
“Arrest this woman!” shouted a voice of a mage she didn’t recognize. “Arrest this mage for posing as a human! Arrest her and take her head!”
As a consort of mages dragged Cora to a holding cell, she could see Lord Mage Velleon behind them, slowly climbing down into the mines.