His fingers are trembling but not because he is cold. His mind is racing though he cannot pick one thought from another. Through hazy eyes this naked man, covered in soot and the filth of dead creatures, sits huddled in the corner of a mineshaft as he struggles to come to terms with where he is. A hundred questions are battling for focus through his head but he hasn’t the sense to comprehend them, let alone have the clarity to give himself time to stop and figure something, anything out.
‘Pick it up.’
A voice, near to him yet it may as well be a mile away, pierces the veil of his stupor.
‘They’re coming fool. Grab your axe and get to work.’
The naked man looks down to see the outline of a tool in the dark. A worn, jagged pickaxe at his feet. There is a puncture wound on the base of his foot. Did he step on it? He feels no pain. He can see no blood. Just the slight sense that there is something amiss, something wrong. Not that he can make it out through the thick layer of grime coating most of his lower body.
‘Will you come to your god’s damned senses and grab your fucking axe now or you’ll end up like that poor sod behind you.’
The naked man turns his head to see the lifeless form of a rotting corpse. It looks like it may have been a farling be he can’t be certain such is the decay. The skin is all but gone as several white bones poke through the flesh illuminated by the dim flicker of the one and only torch light that sits in the distance. A feast for the fat flies who love the dank, humid conditions deep in the dark of the mine. His numbness gives way to a crawling sensation as the maggots from the body have ventured over to the open wound of the naked man’s foot. The shock of the discovery rattles him further but causes him to sharply gain his focus. The smell of the corpse is overwhelming all of a sudden, enough to have him throw up what little he has in his stomach.
‘This axe. Was it his?’ he murmurs to himself upon regaining his composure.
The sounds of iron cracking stone, which was once a distant speck of sound, is now all too alarming. There are footsteps also. Steps of clattering iron loud enough to be heard over the wails and screaming echoing through the chasms of the mines. It is only now that he realises what he is supposed to be doing. He grasps hold of the pickaxe below, gripping the sticky wooden handle by the base.
‘Good’ whispers the voice. ‘Now pull your head out of your arse and start hitting those rocks.’
He is weak, still in shock and a few dribbles of his bile still cling to his chin as he fights the urge to vomit from the stench as second time. A strange whim crosses his thoughts that almost cancels out the din overwhelming him. Some sort of instinct, the desire to survive. He is aware now. His recent memories are faint still but he is aware of what he needs to do as his senses take charge from the muddle of his breakdown.
‘Get up and swing’ he mutters to himself searching for the faintest semblance of willpower.
The footsteps are louder as they encroach. The owner of the voice that has been speaking to him has begun swinging his own axe now so rapidly as if the key to his escape lies under the black rocks at their feet. The naked man lifts his axe and strikes it down with what little strength he can muster. The shrill ringing of iron hitting the stone startles him at first but he keeps on going. He mustn’t stop.
‘Look at this pathetic lump of shit’ utters a deep voice from mere feet away behind him as the footsteps stop still. ‘This one’s new.’
‘How can you tell?’ his companion asks. ‘They all look and smell the same to me. Except those stinking ogres, they smell worse than wolf shit.’
‘You can still see that soft, pale skin. So, either he’s a new face or he’s so idle that a lesson needs to be taught.’
A hand, coated in black iron and sharp edges, grasps him firmly by the neck pulling his head back so that he is staring face to face with the seething grey scowl of a Dothylfar. One whose eyes gleam with an excitable fervour as he yanks the naked man so close that his captor’s warm breath fills his nostrils.
‘Aww, look at the little swine. He’s pissing himself.’
The Dothylfar band patrolling the deep halls of this black chasm burst into a mocking chorus of laughter.
‘It seems this one might not be cut out for the mines. Too feeble, too weak. Are you going to start crying as well feeble man?’
Another Dothylfar approaches with a rusted knife and hands it over.
‘Cut his hair. He doesn’t need it any longer. It’ll get some of the cobwebs out of his eyes so he can do what he’s been put here to do.’
The naked man’s screams echo down throughout the mineshaft as the blade cuts into his scalp, just enough to take some of the skin off along with his blood matted hair. The knife is too dull and so he is forced to endure several moments of agony.
‘If you don’t stop your squealing swine I’ll take your tongue as well, so shut your gob!
His eyes begin to sting as the sweat, dirt and blood pool into the crevices of his face.
‘Now when I get back, there had better be at least ten feet of gravel on the ground or we’ll be chopping off more than just your pretty yellow hair.’
The patrolling band of Dothylfar slavers walk away as their loud march disappears beyond the shadows of the torchlight, like the sound of drums fading into the distance. A moment passes, the tears stop and the sharp pain searing across his scalp presses into his head like fire charring flesh.
‘I would do it if you want to see tomorrow’ speaks the hushed voice. ‘Believe me when I say that spending your remaining days in this forsaken tomb is not the worst thing that can happen here.’
‘Wh-where are w-we?’
‘Do you really need to ask that question?’
The owner of the hushed voice moves closer, crawling silently on all fours so as not to attract attention.
‘Didn’t anyone ever tell you stories about the ash clouds cloaking the islands at the centre of the ocean parting the realms? No tales of the pyrates and marauders who dwell in the Bloodwaters?’
‘I just, I always thought the stories of the Harvest were just fables. Tales told to scare children so that they’d go to bed at night.’
‘I’d wager a hundred crowns that you were born far from the coastlands along the edges of the Severed Sea.’
The naked man begins to tremble again. The pain, the blood and the sinking realisation of just what fate has befallen him are testing the already fragile state of a man taken from his life hundreds of miles from where he now lies.
‘They aren’t just stories my unfortunate friend. The Harvest is more than a tale, it is the reason we are both here. So, do you really need to ask where we are? I’ll throw another hundred crowns onto that bet that you already know.’