"Abigail. I need some more oregano for this soup. Can you go ask Gemma?"
Abigail was laying on a cot on the other end of a crude tent. She was dirtier than her mother liked her to be, but that was the way it had to be when exploring a new land. She had some sort of hard green fruit in her had and was throwing it up in the air and then catching it again. She gave the fruit one more toss, and said, "Yeah," before she crawled out of the tent.
Talia sat by the fire, outside of the tent, on a stone seat that was pushed from the earth by her daughter. Her auburn hair was also messier than she liked to keep it, but it was the new norm among the colonists. They didn't have the proper tools to keep themselves looking as presentable as they did back in Hallum or Briqor. And if they tried to maintain that level of cleanliness it took at least twice as long. Most of the other Dwarves conceded to the new lifestyle and trusted the lingering smell of campfire to cover the stench of dirty clothes.
She sat and stirred the soup, her green eyes looking past sunbaked freckled cheeks, dreaming about when Marv would come to join them.
When Abigail returned, her cupped hand held a small mound of dried leaves. She presented it to her mother and said, "All of it?"
"Yes, that will do," said Talia, and Abigail tilted her hand, letting the aromatic leaves slide into the pot. Talia continued to stir, ensuring that the ingredients we mixed in well.
"Do you think he misses us?" asked Abigail.
"Who? Your father?" asked Talia, surprised to even hear the question, let alone entertain it.
"Yeah," said Abigail.
"Yes, of course, he misses us," said Talia. "What would make you say something like that?"
"I don't know," she said. Abigail snuck a glance at some of the other children running by.
An older girl with brown frizzy hair was running from a smaller boy with a something held high above her head. "Give it back," said the boy, before the two disappeared behind another tent where the older girl's laughter was joined by others.
"Did someone tell you he didn't care?" said Talia.
Abigail shrugged. "I don't know."
"Abby, he loves you so much. Remember the deer he carved for you? I bet he's holding it right now, thinking of you."
"Yeah?" Abby peeked up at her mom and then looked back at the ground.
"Honey, the only reason Dad isn't here is because he wanted us to be safe first. He's going to join us as soon as he earns the money. He should be getting on a boat in a few days."
"Are you sure?"
"One way or another, he's going to find us. If there's one thing I know about your dad, it's that he'd do anything for the ones he loves."
Talia had a hard time seeing in the dim light that crept under a door at the far end of the room. She touched the floor with her hands and felt the rough grains of wood. It was something she didn't have a lot of experience with. Living underground, most surfaces tended to be made from some kind of stone. She reached further to feel her surroundings and a stray sliver of wood caught her finger, embedding itself in her skin. She winced at the pain and began to wonder why anyone would use such a painful material. She felt a small drop of blood form on the finger and the throbbing pang of the sliver that she failed to remove.
"Mom?" she heard a voice.
"Abigail? Is that you?" said Talia. A panic set in as she realized wherever she was, Abigail was part of it too.
"Where are we mom?" She sounded scared.
"I—I don't know," said Talia. "Here. I'm coming to you." Talia pushed herself up onto her legs and felt the fatigue set in. Her legs were weaker than she remembered. Then again, she couldn't remember the last time she used her legs. As she tried, her memories were as black as the room in which she stood. The last thing she remembered was reassuring Abigail that Marv would be there soon.
Her legs groaned. As she stood, she noticed how hungry she was. Her stomach churned at the motion and she put a hand on it, wanting something to fill it. It was smaller than before, hugging her bones tighter. How long have we been asleep? she wondered, but she didn't dare say it out loud. She needed to be brave for Abigail. Is she okay?
She took a few steps forward with her arms in front of her in the darkness.
"Mom?" said Abigail.
"I'm coming," said Talia.
She took another blind step forward, then another, and then her hands hit something. It wooden as well and blocking her path to Abigail. She felt around it. It was thick, like a timber placed in the middle of the room. She tried to turn and go around it, but there was another one, too close for her to fit between them. She tried the other side and found another timber standing tall, from floor to as high as she could reach.
"Mom? Where are you," said Abigail.
"I'm right here, honey. I'm coming,"
Then, a light pierced the darkness, blinding Talia as she frantically searched for an opening. She tried to cover her face, but it was too much light for her arms to do any good. Her eyes adjusted slowly and when it was no longer painful to look around, her heart sank. She was trapped, stuck in a wooden jail cell. She looked at Abigail and saw her, weak and scared in the next cell over.
"I'm getting better at it," said Abigail quietly. "...earth magic." She was dirty and thin, but it was the first bit of hope Talia had seen in her daughter's face since they arrived in their new location. She picked up rocks, one by one, and carried them over to a large mound near the wall of the cavern. The grinding of stone resounded through the large room, making Talia question if she had heard Abigail right. She'd have to ask on the next pass.
"How? How much better?" she said.
"I've been watching the others. I learned a few things," she said, trying not to make it obvious that she was even talking.
They waited until their paths met again, going to and from the mounds of stone and Talia said, "Don't tell anyone."
She couldn't be sure that Abigail was thinking along the same lines as her, but she couldn't let this go. Talia glanced at Gemma, who was watching over them with a faint pink glow marking her temples. Gemma was one of them now—one of the Gnome's minions. But maybe this was their chance to escape. They could get help and free the rest of their people from whatever the Gnomes planned on doing with them.
On the next pass, Talia gave Abigail a look. Her eyes moved from Abigail's face up to a hole in the side of the cavern. It wasn't the kind that was used for walking normally—too rough and irregular—but it was big enough for them to fit inside. "Next time they reclaim the guards," Talia said.
They worked the rest of the day in silence until the Gnomes arrived on schedule: a few hours before they were sent to their cells to rest. They did their usual ritual, having the female Gnome call back the guards one by one.
As Talia passed Abigail again, she looked at her with wide eyes making sure she was ready. Abigail nodded again and looked away. When the number 3 was called, Gemma stepped down from her perch and walked to the hallway. Once she was out of sight, Abigail delivered a load of rocks and leaned between the mound of rocks and the wall. Talia kept an eye on the wall, seeing small foot and handholds appear all the way up to the tunnel. When the climbing path was nearly finished, Talia brought another load of rocks back to the mound.
Abigail began climbing first, and she was fast. Talia wished she could be as nimble, but she was in her middle years of life. Climbing vertical stone walls wasn't as easy as it used to be. Abigail made it to the top and laid in the opening, reaching a hand for her mother. Seeing her face was enough incentive for Talia to give everything she had to climb that wall. But that is also when someone noticed their escape attempt.
"Look, by the worm tunnel," someone shouted.
Talia didn't take the time to figure out who said it, she just climbed as fast as she could. She grabbed the ledge and hauled herself up. She wanted to lay there and catch her breath, but she knew there was no time. "Come on," she said, and the two Dwarves began running down the tunnel. Behind them, they could already hear the shifting stone of skilled Earth mages.
They ran down the tunnel, in the direction that they assumed led out. It was difficult in the dark, with the irregular rounded floor, but there was no time to be picky. Talia bumbled along with Abigail a few steps ahead of her. Then they reached a point where the tunnel narrowed. It was still a big enough opening for Abigail to fit through, but not for Talia.
Abigail looked back at her mother, no doubt knowing that Talia wouldn't fit. She tried to use her earth magic on it to clear some of the stone, but she was too slow. Talia said, "You need to go without me. Find help."
"No, I can't," said Abigail. She kept frantically trying to clear the rocks, but it was no use. She was too slow and their pursuers were too quick. Talia grabbed a rock and ran toward the Gnome woman chasing them. She tried to swing the stone at the Gnome's face, but the Gnome was a skilled warrior. The Gnome side-stepped when Talia swung and slid her blade along Talia's cheek. The Gnome dodged Talia's stone and ended the maneuver behind her. A second blade pierced her side and Talia fell.
As Talia laid on the sharp ridges of the round tunnel, she watched as the Gnome walked over to Abigail, who was still trying to clear rocks. Abigail saw the Gnome approaching too and breathed out a small, "Mom." The Gnome grabbed Abigail by the hair and said, "If either of you tries this again, I'll kill both of you."
Talia woke before the blinding light of the cavern beyond broke through the darkness of her cell. She usually did. It was sad to think that her internal clock had even adjusted to her imprisonment. Talia pushed herself to a sitting position and the wound in her side ached the whole way. It was crusted over with blood, and she feared that if she moved too fast or in the wrong way, the blood would start flowing again.
She pulled herself onto her hands and knees and said, "Abigail, are you okay?"
"Mom, is that you?" said Abigail.
With a breath of relief, Talia said, "Did they hurt you?"
"Who?" said Abigail, sounding confused. "Where are we? Why is it so dark?"
"What do you mean?" said Talia. "We're in our cells. And the Gnomes—did they hurt you?"
"What Gnomes?" said Abigail. And that's when Talia noticed a pink glow coming from Abigail's direction. It was almost all she could see of Abigail. On her temples were glowing pink marks, matching the ones on Gemma.
Talia couldn't help but cry as she worked that day moving rocks from one mound to the next, she wasn't even working with Abigail anymore now that they knew she could use earth magic. Abby was close by, but not close enough that she could have a fragmented conversation with her over several runs between rock piles. Instead, they moved a male Dwarf over to fill Abigail's spot.
He was a kind-looking fellow with wrinkles at the corners of his eyes and a long black beard that seemed to be greying early for his age.
"I want to help," he said in one pass.
On the next, he started to speak, but Talia cut him off. "No. I don't want to get her killed."
On the next pass, he said, "We can get her out at least. I'm pretty sure of it."
"Who's we?" Talia asked.
"My three sons, they're all skilled in magic." The man slid his eyes to one side, indicating the direction of them. They were teenagers, but they looked strong. Together, they were able to move some impressive loads of stone around the cavern.
On the next pass, the Dwarf said, "I'll distract, you take out Gemma."
"Take out Gemma? Abigail doesn't even know about this and how would I take out Gemma?" said Talia, getting flustered at the request.
"Hey, you two. No talking," yelled Gemma. She took a step forward from her vantage point on top of one of the mounds, but the two Dwarves walked away from each other quickly and Gemma stayed where she was.
Talia and the other Dwarf went a few more passes in silence. Then on the Dwarf's way back toward the central column, he raised his eyebrows at Talia as if asking her if she was okay with the plan.
Abigail didn't know what was going on. She had forgotten everything since they had been there. Would she even be able to escape if Talia were to attempt to break her out? Then again, anything was better than being a slave, being kept in a jail cell and barely fed. Being denied contact with your loved ones. And she could smell the fresh air in that tunnel. If they could provide enough of a distraction, Abigail could get free. At the very least, Abigail wouldn't be a slave. At best, she would get help, and free the rest of them. It was a long shot, Talia wasn't even sure if they were still on Daegal or somewhere else entirely, but she had to try. And after the last incident, it might be better to try something like this was when the Gnomes were away. She looked back at the Dwarf and nodded.
When the Dwarf passed her again he whispered, "The name's Vern, by the way."
She nodded and said, "Talia."
Vern kept walking toward the central column of the chamber. Behind Talia's back, as she walked away from the column, she heard Vern's footsteps come to a halt. This was it. Somehow, she had to stop Gemma, a powerful earth mage, with no magic of her own. Talia wasn't a fighter of any sort. She had stayed home most days, trying to help their family scrape by selling baked goods. She didn't know how to use a weapon, or where to even get one.
But she needed to get Abigail free. She needed to know that Abby had a shot at a normal life. She couldn't stand seeing her like this any longer. She looked so lost and confused. Even after Talia explained that morning Abigail had forgotten again within an hour. She couldn't be here.
So Talia grabbed all that she had, a stone. She heard Gemma screaming at Vern, but Vern did not move. Gemma came down from her perch and started stomping toward Vern, screaming at him now. When Gemma had walked far enough that Talia was out of her peripheral, Talia began walking back toward them. She saw Gemma position her arms to pull up stone from the ground. As soon as the earth began to rise up, so did Talia. She sprinted at her friend, her footsteps drowned out by the sound of shifting stone. The fury grew in Talia to the point that her face twisted with emotion. The earth slammed into Vern sending him skidding across the floor just as Talia's rock hit Gemma's head. She swung as hard as she could, and Gemma fell limp against Talia.
Talia was terrified that she had just killed Gemma, but she forced herself to stay focused. She couldn't waste any time. She needed to free Abigail from this disaster.
She looked up and saw Vern's three boys engaged in a fight with two of the guards. The first had been caught off guard with his arms pinned to the ground by stone shackles, though he still seemed to be managing by controlling the Earth with kicks and stomps.
As the boys fought, Abigail was free of a guard. Talia ran to Vern, "Are you okay?" she said.
"Go!" he shouted back. "Get your daughter out first. Then send back help!"
Talia sprinted to Abigail and grabbed her by the arm.
"What's going on?" said Abigail.
"We need to go now!" said Talia rushing her daughter back to the worm tunnel. "Make handholds in the stone. We're escaping," she said.
"Where are we?" said Abigail.
It killed Talia to send her out like this, but she had to hope that somehow she would find other people and remember them. she put her hands on either side of Abigail's face, looked her straight in the eyes, and said, "Run. No matter what happens, you need to get out of here. Daddy's out there. Go find him!" She hoped the contact would help the words stick in Abigail's head.
Abigail built the handholds as Talia kept watch. Most of the guards were focused on the chaos surrounding Vern's boys. They had taken out two of the boys, but one still held his ground providing the opening for Abigail and Talia to climb the wall.
As Abigail climbed into the tunnel Talia heard the voice of Hans, one of the brainwashed guards, behind them. "Up there! Stop them!" he yelled. Talia looked back and saw the utter chaos below. Other workers were throwing rocks and trying to take down the guards, but they were too strong. The Gnomes had picked them for a reason.
Hans made it to the base of the wall began to climb after them. "Mom, hurry," said Abigail from the ledge above her. Talia was even slower now with the wound in her side. Below them, another guard started climbing the wall and Talia knew what she had to do.
Talia looked up at Abigail's eyes one last time. "Abby, you need to run. Get out of here and run. Daddy is out there waiting for you. Go find him." It was the only thing she could think of that might motivate her to go alone.
"Mom. No! Not without you," said Abigail. The tears began rolling down her face.
"You won't make it if I come. Go! Find Daddy! I love you!" said Talia.
"I love you too, Momma," said Abigail, and she disappeared into the darkness of the tunnel.
As soon as she did, Talia let go of the wall, crashing into the guards below her and tearing them away from the path to her daughter.