Congratulations to one of two runners-up in the Whoosh! First Chapter Competition, Wendy Adams. Wendy is a primary school teacher living in Tasmania Australia. She has a Scottish mother and is extremely proud of her Celtic roots. She has three children and loves running, surfing, reading and of course writing.
It was raining again, a torrential downpour, but deep in the belly of the Earth, Pippin didn’t know it. All he knew was that his back ached, his hands were blistering and his knees were red raw. He was counting the minutes until it was time to go home.
“Git movin’ you lazy scummeral!” An overseer with hands like chunks of stone clipped the back of his head causing Pippin to lose his footing and fall face first into a rock wall.
The people around ignored them. No-one spoke. He hadn’t expected them to. No-one wanted to stand out. No-one wanted to make a fuss. It was better to blend in with the cold, grey stone and remain unnoticed.
The boy felt his head. No blood. Good. He hurried on, out of the overseer’s reach.
He was tired and hungry but that was nothing new. In this dark place, lit only by the meagre light from some tired lanterns, hardship was his constant companion. All for wolfstone. Pippin picked up the solid grey rock that looked so ordinary and insignificant and wondered again what the Greymen did with it that made it so precious.
Finally, the day shift was over. The light was beginning to fade as hundreds of workers lumbered out of the mine, a silent army snaking their way to their squalid homes in the sides of the barren hills. There was no sound. The overseers surveyed the crowd as they melted away as if the rain itself was dissolving them.
Pippin didn’t mind the rain. It cooled him down and made him feel alive after the stifling heat of the mine. He felt the droplets wriggle down underneath the tattered collar of his shirt and shrugged his shoulders. They tickled his pale skin. He tilted his head back as far as it would go and opened his mouth. Tiny droplets trickled down his throat, sweet as honey.
“Get on yer way, lad,” the other overseer – the one with the kind eyes tossed his head in the direction of the crowd. “Don’t want to be caught up when the night shift comes. Could end up doing a double.”
Pippin nodded his head in thanks and took to his heels. It had happened before, that he had been too slow in leaving the worksite and had been forced down the mine again to complete another gruelling ten-hour shift. He shuddered. The very thought gave his feet wings and he was off, running down the path to home.
Suddenly he saw them coming – powering towards him. The nightshift were here. A flood of workers, men and women, boys and girls, some no older than three or four were covering the path. There was nowhere for him to go and panicking, he felt himself pushing against the human tide. He had to get home. They would be waiting for him. Who would care for them if he didn’t get back? What if they wandered outside? They knew it was forbidden but they were young and ….. But he wouldn’t allow himself to finish that thought. He wouldn’t acknowledge it ever – not even to himself.
His thin, bony elbows were his only weapons and he was using them effectively pushing his way through. His heart was starting to hope. Maybe he would make it home tonight and the glimmer of hope gave him strength. Push, push, tiptoe forward. Push ..push… He was almost there – one final heave would free him from this people prison. With all the strength he could muster, he gave one final heave and he was free. For a moment.
Huge hands grabbed the back of his shirt and Pippin felt the thin fabric rip in the struggle. His heart sank. It would take an age to repair and he had no other. He tried to free himself and came nose to nose with the red-faced overseer.
“Where do ya think yor goin’? he said and he grinned showing broken and brownish teeth. Pippin was hoisted into the air but his feet were moving as if he was still on the ground. That made the overseer laugh even more. “Stupid cave-boy. Doesn’t even know he’s in the air. Not fit for anyfink but diggin’.”
He let Pippin fall and the people around him moved back to avoid being hit. The air was punched out of his body and he scrambled to his knees gasping in harsh, frantic sobs for breath.
The overseer’s foot kicked him in the ribs – not hard enough to hurt – just enough to make sure he got to his feet. But Pippin couldn’t. Try as he might, he had nothing – he was spent. The overseer was getting angry. “Ger up on ya feet and back in that hole!” he demanded his eyes drilling into Pippin, daring him to disobey. Terror flooded the boy and he closed his eyes, waiting for the blows to rain down on him.
“Leave him be.”
“Wot?” The overseer’s head swivelled around the crowd, searching like a beacon for the person who would dare threaten his authority. The crowd breathed nervously – some hurried on, escaping into the mine but a few hesitated. No-one ever spoke to the over-seers let alone made a demand. Who would be brave or stupid enough to stand up to this one?
“Who sed that?” His small dark eyes darted this way and that. “None of yous move! Who was the big man who dares to give me orders?”
There was a nervous thrum, a shuffling of feet and for a moment, no-one spoke.
The red-faced overseer grabbed Pippin by the ear and dragged him to his feet. He hissed at the crowd, “Step up or this dirty cave boy will wish he’d never bin born.” He squeezed his massive hands together to make a fist and Pippin closed his eyes again. He saw their faces in his mind, both fair as moonlight, so small and defenceless. Who would care for them if…..
“It was me. Take your hands off the boy.”
An old man, wrinkled and bowed shuffled forward and placed himself before the overseer who immediately let Pippin fall to the ground. He sniffed and rubbed his eyes as if he couldn’t believe what he was seeing.
“Wot you finking, old man? You know the rules – you are the workers, I am the overseer. I tell you what to do – you don’t even open your gob to me!”
The old man, his hair as white as thistledown, bowed his head as if waiting for what was to happen- accepting the consequences. He gestured for Pippin to leave whilst he could but the boy was frozen to the spot.
“Or right, you lot. Git movin’. That there wolfstone won’t dig itself and if yous don’t hurry, there won’t be any pay for any of yous.”
The crowd disappeared like snow on a summer’s day. They were paid little – just enough to keep them alive- nobody could afford to slave away for nothing. The excitement was over. Not one person gave the boy and the old man a backward glance. It was as if at that moment, they ceased to exist.
When the crowd had gone, the old man tried to walk away but the overseer grabbed his arm.
“Not you grandpa! You and me we’ve got some unfinished business.”
“Please!” the word escaped from Pippin without his brain even being aware of it. He looked at the old man – so thin, with clothes that were threadbare and dirty and something in his heart lurched. This man had stood up for him – a boy alone in the world- and to Pippin this was a gift more precious than a mine full of wolfstone.
The overseer took no notice. He dragged the old man by the arm. “You know where yor goin’ don’t ya? Hope you don’t have no family cos I doubt if they’ll be seeing you again.”
The old man didn’t struggle or make a sound but as he passed Pippin, he thrust something into his hand, something small and square, soft to the touch but substantial.
Pippin opened his mouth to speak but the old man hushed him with a gesture. He motioned for him to conceal the gift and then said, “Run.”
Pippin did. He never saw the old man again.