It was a week later, and something sounded different.
Ethan stopped his pick midswing, the abrupt change in momentum tugging at the sore muscles in his back then never got a chance to fully heal. Turning away from the rock wall where his group of boys were still working, he tilted his head, listening.
That’s what it was.
It was nothing. Or at least, less than what should have been.
By now, he’d grown used to using sound to keep track of where the other boys were working. When they split up in the morning, with at least two teenagers per group of younger ones, they tried to tackle tunnels in as close proximity to each other as possible. But they were never in visual contact, and that was when the fact that their work environment was a twisted set of hollow, echoing tubes came in particularly handy.
Ethan had developed the habit of figuring out how the other groups were faring by the sound of their activity. As long as the hammering of the picks maintained a fairly steady rhythm, he could guess that they were all right — or, more specifically, that they weren’t being disturbed by any unwelcome visitors.
But right now, the usual racket echoing through the tunnels had fallen off slightly. Most observers wouldn’t have noticed, but it was enough to catch Ethan’s attention. Because it wasn’t just one or two picks that had stopped; that, he couldn’t have deciphered even if he tried. No, this sounded like a whole tunnel had fallen silent.
“What is it, Ethan?” a little voice asked from the wall behind him.
One by one, the picks around him stopped striking as the boys noticed he had stepped away.
He turned back toward them. “It’s probably nothing,” he shrugged, “but I think I’ve gotta check something out.”
The nervous looks he got from them made him attempt a reassuring smile.
“Don’t worry,” he tried again. “I’ll be right back. Everything’s probably fine, but I better check. And I’ll send Harper to keep you company in the meantime, okay?”
He was about to turn around when he heard someone running up the main tunnel. Glancing down it, he saw a small figure hurtling toward them.
“Shalin!” he exclaimed, as the boy reached them. “What are you —”
Ethan frowned. “Whoa, wait, who ran away?”
“The new kid.”
“The new kid?” One look at the little boy’s scared face, and Ethan knew there was no misunderstanding. So the silence coming from down the tunnels hadn’t been his imagination. “Why? What happened?”
“We don’t know,” a teenager’s voice broke in.
Ethan looked up. Shalin hadn’t come alone. Jonah and a group of boys were arriving behind him from the lower tunnel.
“He just — up and left,” he told him. “We couldn’t talk him out of it.”
Ethan didn’t answer right away, looked down at Shalin, and back up to Jonah.
There were always at least two teenagers with every group of younger boys. Right now, Jonah was the only one.
“Where’s Terrell?” He’d already guessed at the answer.
“He went after the kid,” Jonah told him. “He told me to come tell you, but I couldn’t just leave them alone while I came up here,” he indicated the younger boys around him. “I didn’t know what to do, so I brought all of them with me. It’ll cut into our chances of making quota, but —”
“You did the right thing,” Ethan said. “Quota’s not our biggest concern at the moment.”
Based on the tunnel he knew their group had been working in… “Where did the kid run off to?”
Jonah just stared at him, his face fighting to be calm, but his eyes telling a different story. It was as Ethan had expected. There weren’t many options down there, especially for someone who didn’t know his way around.
“Jonah, stay with the boys here. I’ll grab Harper on the way down and send him back up here with you,” Ethan slipped into autopilot.
“Everybody, stay here. Keep working, everything as usual. All that you guys are concerned about is quota for now. Jonah, did you bring the boy’s pick with you? And Terrell’s?”
“Good. Have the boys take turns alternating between theirs and his. You and Harper cover Terrell’s. I know I said quota isn’t important right now, but I was wrong. They need to make it, too.”
The look Jonah gave him indicated he understood what he was getting at. By the end of this, Terrell and the boy might not be in any shape to make up for lost time.
“What about yours?” the teenager asked.
Ethan almost sighed. He knew whatever his answer to that was, it would be ignored. “I’d tell you to forget about it and focus on your own, but…” he said, leaving the end hanging. “If you and Harper could cover that too, I can’t say I won’t appreciate it,” he added.
“Oh, also,” Jonah added, “ya know how the main artery splits at the end?”
“Terrell went left.”
Ethan nodded. And he was gone. Taking off down the main artery, he brushed past several other branches where his boys were working, picking up on the puzzled glances from the ones who noticed as he slipped by, but not stopping except to briefly recruit Harper to go help Jonah, with minimal explanation.
Now wasn’t the time for distractions.
A long time ago, Ethan and Terrell had devised a system of organizing their little band of boys into the safest, most fair workforce they could think of. They paired up at least two or three of the teenagers at a time, and assigned them to a team of three or four younger boys. As more boys came in and their group had gotten larger, the teams had grown as well: Now, four or five teens matched up with six or seven young ones.
Each morning, the groups rotated which tunnel they were on. That kept the work balanced, and offered what little variety it could to the daily monotony.
That morning, Terrell and Jonah had been with the last group of the boys to head out, taking them to the tunnel the farthest down of all the groups’ assignments. It hadn’t occurred to Ethan at the time — though clearly, it should have — how potentially disastrous that could be.
Because the new kid was with that group. The kid who wouldn’t tell them his name. Who couldn’t be more than Shalin’s age, and Shalin was only eight. The kid with the purple blotch on the side of his head, a bruise that Ethan guessed was the reason the kid was terrified of him.
He fought the guilty feeling in his stomach. It was almost a week ago that Terrell had come to him with news of the kid’s arrival. Later that night, like he always did when a boy was brought in, he’d set off to scour the barracks for the newcomer. Usually, it was a quick chore; the room was huge, but there were only so many places to hide. And by now, Ethan knew them all.
But this time, it had taken some work. The usual nooks and deserted bunks were empty, and Ethan had begun to wonder if Terrell had been mistaken. But as he was about to turn back, he’d remembered one place he hadn’t looked — one place in the gigantic room he hadn’t been in years.
The barracks were never well-lit. Never had been. The only light came from bare bulbs inset in the walls and protected by caging, spaced at regular intervals along the perimeter. Of those bulbs, many were spotty, at best, flickering in and out, casting freakishly animated shadows as they flared to life and then just as suddenly died out again. Occasionally, one or two would be reliable enough to see clearly by. But finding five such functional ones in a row — that had been a rare thing.
Years ago, Ethan had in fact found that many and seized upon it, setting up a makeshift boundary around it and staking his claim on the spot. It had since become their home. Once, one of the boys had referred to the place as the Wall, and the direly uncreative name had stuck.
But beyond the Wall, and beyond the patches of skittish light outside that, some bulbs had long since stopped working altogether. Interspersed with the semi-working ones, their dark spots could be missed, with the other nearby lights covering at least part of the darkened area.
But in one obscure corner, it wasn’t just some bulbs broken or burned out; all of them were. The darkness in that area was so thick, it could strangle you.
No matter how many years went by, the nagging fear associated with being that blind, that helpless, had never lessened. He knew the dangers darkness could hide from him.
That was why he’d only been to the black corner once. It had been shortly after he’d first been brought to Kelmar. At the time, he’d had nowhere else to hide, and he’d decided if he couldn’t see his attackers, then they wouldn’t be able to see him, either. He’d been right, on that count; but what he hadn’t expected was the memories it would stir up.
After that, he’d stayed as far away from the darkness as he could.
Until now. It was the last place he hadn’t checked, because all the other new boys had avoided hiding there as much as he did. But, with nowhere else left to look, he thought perhaps this child didn’t share his fear of the dark.
He’d been right. Fighting the tremble in his own step, he’d approached the corner, listening, hoping for some sound to give away the presence of a little person. And he’d found it: The quiet, muted breathing, hiccupped by a sob now and then. Muffled, but definitely there.
He’d spoken into the darkness, hoping to avoid startling the kid before starting in after him. It hadn’t really worked. The breathing became inaudible, the sobs stopped altogether. Whoever he was, Ethan had to give him credit for knowing how to hide.
But if Ethan couldn’t hear him, he couldn’t very well find him. Instead, he’d settled for situating himself somewhere within the blackness along the wall, and talked to the air. Offering reassurance, trying to explain that he was just there to help the kid, that there were other little boys just like him who wanted to meet him and help him too.
He hadn’t heard a sound. Whatever the kid had thought of his offer, it hadn’t been enough to get a reply.
Eventually, Ethan had left. He couldn’t force the kid to come with him if he didn’t want to — even for his own protection, and even if he’d actually been able to see him. But when he’d gotten back to the Wall illuminated by the five steady lights, he realized he’d picked up a shadow.
The little guy had followed him. From a distance, almost silently, he’d tracked Ethan back to the makeshift barricade. Ethan guessed he’d wanted to see if Ethan’s claims about the other children there was true — that any of what Ethan’s disembodied voice had assured him of was true.
If Ethan had said he wasn’t impressed, he’d have been kidding himself. In a strange, scary and overwhelming place, the kid had managed to keep his wits about him enough to not only hide himself, but to investigate an offer of safety that could have easily been a trap. Which was more than Ethan had had his first night, he recalled. His own run to the dark happened only after he’d let himself get in trouble the first few days.
But this was also when he’d actually seen the boy for the first time. Terrell had been right, he was young, which had made his caution all the more notable. But what had stood out even more than his age in the dim but unwavering light of the Wall, was the ugly bruise discoloring the entire right side of the kid’s face.
Ethan had winced, as the pieces had fallen into place. At least, the most obvious ones. The kid had learned his caution the hard way, had learned that to survive meant to stay out of the way. More often than not, to stay alone.
The size of the bruise had also meant that whoever had given it to him, had been at least five times his size. Even now, at a vantage point from which he had been able to see that there actually were other younger boys at the Wall, the newcomer had lingered back, staring at Ethan out of the corner of his eye. Avoiding him. Because he was bigger. Whether Ethan himself considered himself a man yet was irrelevant; to the boy, there was no doubt. To him, Ethan had been just another giant who could hurt him just like others had.
In the end, it had taken much negotiation, much explanation and much reassurance, proving to the kid that there were other much bigger, much meaner men than Ethan in the barracks, and that by sticking with this group, the kid stood a much better chance of surviving the week. But after contributions from the other boys, they eventually coaxed him to come to the comparative safety behind the Wall.
That had been last week.
Since then, the kid had barely spoken a word to anyone, least of all to Ethan. They still didn’t even know his name.
When they had had to decide which work team to assign him to, Ethan’s was out, simply by virtue of his being the oldest and, apparently, most intimidating to the little guy. But someone still had to keep an eye on him; as the newest, he was the most inexperienced with mine work, not to mention a vulnerable target for anyone looking to make trouble. Which was why Terrell’s group was the next obvious choice.
Good to see how long that lasted, Ethan grimaced, finally reaching the last tunnel in their rotation — the one the boy had run from.
Ethan looked ahead along the artery, which, this far down, narrowed rapidly. Not far from where he stood, it shrank to the width of a regular tunnel and split into two almost identical separate branches. If they hadn’t seen which he had taken, he and Terrell could be on a goose chase down the wrong one for a long time before realizing their mistake, meanwhile giving the kid all that much more of a head start. He shuddered, hoping their runaway didn’t have the motivation to run all that far.
Ahead of him, the artery split, and he veered right. If Terrell had taken the left, as Jonah had said, one of them would have to run into the kid sooner or later. Sooner, if Ethan had a choice in the matter.
Echos of swinging picks reverberated down the rock face, but Ethan couldn’t tell where the sound was actually coming from. It could be in the tunnel he was running down — or the other one, which ran almost directly alongside it. The sound was fairly faint, but it was there.
He slowed from a jog to a trot, not so much from being tired as from wanting to take a closer look at everything a he went by. The kid had already proven he had a knack for hiding, and running right by him was the last thing Ethan wanted to do.
There were no branching tunnels down here. He wasn’t sure how far the artery went on its own, but at least he didn’t have to worry checking a dozen side tunnels the kid might have ducked down. There was only one danger down here, and if he were to run into it, it would be head on.
Then it occurred to him that if the kid was indeed intent on hiding, he’d hear Ethan’s crunching footsteps announcing his arrival a mile away. He dropped his trot altogether, resorting to a silent if hurried walk, the sound of his boots on rock falling away to a quiet padding.
A few winding turns later, he heard it.
It was quiet, and if he’d have been running, he probably would have missed it over the sound of his own breathing.
He stopped, hoping he’d heard what he thought he had. But just as he paused to listen for a repeat, his foot accidentally crunched unexpectedly against a particularly large debris stone on the ground. The sound echoed against the rock walls, and he winced. So much for being subtle.
After the echo died down, he waited, hoping to hear something, anything, give away the kid’s location. But there wasn’t anything, not even so much as a breath of air.
If not, he was about to look very stupid.
Taking another look around in the dim light, he spoke to the empty tunnel.
“Hey, buddy, it’s Ethan. If you’re in here –” he glanced around the fairly narrow tunnel, a thousand dark spots in the walls’ irregular surface that could hide a kid that small. “I just wanted to say, um — look, I know you’re scared. Honestly, I can’t blame you. This is a scary place, even for someone who’s been here a while. And you, well, it’s even scarier when you’re alone and don’t know anyone. Don’t know who to trust. Who’ll protect you, or who’ll stab you in the back as soon as you give them the chance.”
As far as this part of the conversation was concerned, he knew exactly what to say. It didn’t feel like all that long ago that he’d gone through the same thing, the insecurity, the nights he couldn’t sleep because he didn’t know who’d be waiting in the shadows for him to close his eyes.
The tricky thing he was stuck with wasn’t an ability to relate; it was convincing the kid that he had an option other than fighting alone.
“I know you don’t have much of a reason to trust us. We’re strangers to you as much as the other men down here. I get that. But…”
He had to be persuasive, but not pushy. If he came across as too eager, that might turn the kid off completely. Might sound suspiciously too good to be true.
“…but on our team, we look out for each other. That’s something you can see, even if you don’t know us. We don’t hang each other out to dry, even when that might seem like the easier thing to do. We all need each other.
He paused, not sure what else to say, but also not sure he’d said enough to reach the kid.
If the kid was even there.
When nothing but silence and the distant echoes of picks filled the void left in the wake of his words, he began to wonder if he really had just imagined the sob. Either that, or the kid had no intention of coming back with him, no matter what he said.
He sighed, leaning back against one of the walls.
“Where are you, kid?” he whispered, more to himself than to any imaginary listener. “We’re your friends. Why can’t you see that?”
Ethan’s eyes shot open, darting around the darkened tunnel. The voice was little. Quiet, almost a whisper. But undeniably real.
Ethan cleared his throat, trying to think, instantly aware that he was being given one more chance to save the kid. He could not mess this up.
“I’m not so sure about that.”
That was the best he could do? It hadn’t come out at all like he’d meant it. He fumbled, tried to come up with something better, but to his surprise, his invisible audience actually responded.
“Well, yeah, I did have one friend,” the voice admitted hesitantly. “One time.”
“No, I mean —” Ethan tried again, “I mean you do have friends down here. Or, at least, you can. If you want us.”
The relative silence took over the tunnel again, and Ethan hoped it was just because the kid was pondering the option, not because he’d decided to disappear again.
“You wanna be my friend?” the voice finally reemerged from the pensive quiet.
“Yeah,” Ethan answered eagerly.
Fair question. The interrogative tone seemed like one that should be coming from a grown man, not a barely 8-year-old kid. Why would they want to be his friends? Why would they care? Coming from that little voice, it carried the weight of a “what is the meaning of life” kind of puzzlement.
“Because, well, because you’re alone. And because all of us know how that feels. We were alone once, too, all of us. When we got here, we didn’t know anyone. We were scared. We felt like you do right now.”
He paused, letting his eyes search the tunnel’s roof — but not to look for the kid. Just remembering.
“But when we found each other, even if we didn’t get an answer to why this happened to us, we at least got a reason to keep going. We became friends, and that was reason enough. We wouldn’t give up on each other.
“And that’s why we’d like you to come be one of us. We won’t let you give up, because that’s what friends do.”
The tunnel grew still again, and all Ethan could hear was his own anxious heartbeat.
Then he saw him.
The little face appeared first, around the edge of one of the dozens of crevices in the wall’s uneven surface. This particular crevice was high up, near the roof, so it took the boy a minute to shimmy back down to the ground. Then he was standing only a few yards away from Ethan. In plain sight.
His face was dirty, smudged with what clearly had been a barrage of tears not long ago. But now, his eyes were bright even in the dimness. Hesitant still, not all doubt completely erased. But enough.
Ethan kneeled down to his level and smiled. “Well, you’re good at hiding, I’ll give you that.”
The bright eyes blinked back at him.
“So, you think you wanna come back with me?”
There was a pause for a second, but finally the little head nodded. Ethan felt relief fuel the smile on his face.
That was it. The hard work was done.
“All right then. Well, I guess … I guess we should get going,” he shrugged. “You ready?”
The boy took a step forward, then stopped.
Ethan cocked his head. “What is it? What’s wrong?”
“Do I hafta go back up there?” came the quiet question.
Now it was Ethan’s turn to blink. “What do you mean? I thought you said you wanted to come.”
“I do. I wanna be your friend.”
The kid hung his head, shuffling his feet. “I don’t wanna hit the rocks.”
Hit the rocks? “Oh, you mean you don’t like using the picks? I know, it’s hard work. And it isn’t fun, believe me I know. But it isn’t that bad, you get used to it after a while.”
“It’s not too hard. But I can’t do it.”
The kid sat down, and, deciding this clearly wasn’t over yet, Ethan sat next to him.
“Is that why you ran off?” he asked quietly. “Because something happened with the picks?”
The kid nodded a little. “I can’t do it.”
“Yes, you can. I know you can. Buddy, if you don’t, you’re gonna get in trouble.”
The kid’s eyes widened. “You’d tell on me?”
“No no no,” Ethan quickly shook his head. “I would never. But it’s not up to me — the picks keep track of whether you use them or not. And they tell the guards if you don’t.”
“No, not fine. The guards will hurt you if you don’t do the work.”
“And he’ll hurt me if I do.”
There was apparently more to this than Ethan had thought. “Who’s gonna hurt you?”
The kid hesitated. “They told me, the harder I work, the sooner I get out.”
“Yeah, that’s true.”
“I can’t get out.”
“No, they’re actually telling the truth. Of course you can.”
“No, I can’t!”
The kid hid his face in his hands, suddenly shaking, clearly terrified. But as he turned away, Ethan again noticed the bruise on the side of his face.
“You mean, whoever did this to you…” he indicated the bruise, “will hurt you again when you get out.”
The kid raised his head to look at Ethan again.
Ethan sighed, understanding his frustration. “I get it.” He leaned back against the rock wall. “If you don’t work, they hurt you here. If you do work, someone else will hurt you when you get out. That’s tough. And that’s what you realized while you were working, and that’s why you ran away.”
The kid’s silence provided all the answer he needed. Ethan knew he was right.
After a pause, the kid spoke up again. “I can’t do it.”
Ethan looked down at him. “Look, kid. I don’t have a good answer for you. I wish I did. But for right now, the best thing you can do, is work right along with the rest of us. If your debt is anything like ours, it’ll take a good long time before you even come close to working it off. And in the meantime, it’ll keep you from getting hammered by the guards. Believe me, that hurts.”
“That it hurts? Yes.”
“No. That it’ll take a long time.”
“Let me put it this way. Most kids that came down here at your age, are still down here. And now they’re 11, 12, 13 years old.”
That seemed to get the kid’s attention. “They’re old.”
Ethan suppressed a grin at his perspective. “Yes, very old. Much older than you are now. See? So you have time.”
The kid thought about that.
“Okay,” he finally agreed.
“Does that mean you’ll come back up with me?” Ethan asked.
“Yeah, I guess.”
Ethan got to his feet. “Ya know, kid, I think there’s only one other thing.”
“You already know my name, but I don’t know yours.”
“Oh,” the kid managed a grin. “It’s Rothan.”
“Well, Rothan, come on, we have a tunnel full of people who will be thrilled to see you.”
Together, they retraced their steps up the tunnel, back toward the main artery. They didn’t say much, but Ethan didn’t mind. He was just glad he’d managed to retrieve the kid safely, before anyone else had a chance to —
Anyone else. He almost stopped walking, realizing.
The kid noticed the fumble in his step, and looked up. Ethan screwed his eyes shut, a new dread hitting him. “Terrell.”
“He’s the … the big kid, right?” Rothan asked.
“Is he okay?”
“That’s the problem.” Ethan opened his eyes again, quickening his pace. “Come on,” he urged the kid. “He went to find you, like I did. From what I know, he went down the other tunnel. We took a gamble — we didn’t know which one you were down, so we split up and hoped one of us would run into you.”
“You found me.”
Rothan’s voice sounded a little more nervous as he hurried to keep up with Ethan’s longer strides. “Who else?”
Ethan’s face was grim. “Bad men.”
That was the problem with the artery split. The two tunnels were so close alongside one another that, from the entrance, it was difficult to tell which one the hammering of picks was coming from. Because Rothan and Ethan had gone in and out without any trouble pretty effectively narrowed down the source to the other tunnel. The one Terrell had gone down.
And the chances that the teenager had managed to get all the way down and back out without running into that source were not that good.
They arrived back at the split, and Ethan glanced down the second tunnel. Picks could still be heard swinging, but it was difficult to tell if it was the full contingent, or if any had fallen off. If they had, it was a good guess what they had taken a break to give attention to. Or, not what — who.
“All right,” Ethan took a deep breath. “You gotta get outta here, kid. What’s down there — you made a lucky choice when you picked the other tunnel. I don’t want to ruin your luck, okay? Head back up til you find one of our groups. They’ll help you out.”
“Where are you going?”
“I’m gonna get Terrell back. If he’s down there.”
Ethan was about to turn down the left tunnel when he realized Rothan was staring at him. “What is it?”
The kid just blinked. “You really do look out for each other.”
Ethan gave him a small smile. “Like I said, that’s what friends do.”
And he ran. Down the tunnel and into the dark, hoping his assumptions were wrong but figuring they weren’t. This was one time he wished he wasn’t right.
The further he got, the clearer the sound of picks became. And then, he was there. The tunnel widened, as if it had swollen to accommodate the size of the half dozen burly men chipping away at its walls.
Except not all of the men were working.
Three of them were congregated in the center of the space, looking down at something between them. Ethan had a pretty good idea of what it was.
Before he could do anything, one of the men shifted, moving to the side and opening up a clear view of the center of their attention.
It was Terrell.
He struggled to sit up, his hands tied behind him with his own shirt that they had ripped from his back. Blood ran down his face, and one eye was almost swollen shut. His torso, doubtless, had taken several hits as well, but those bruises wouldn’t show up for a while. At least, not visibly.
Ethan was used to seeing blood. He was used to seeing black eyes, bruises, lacerations. He was used to being on the receiving end of them, more often than not, and had learned to take it without so much as a blink. But when it was one of his boys that was the target, no matter how many times it happened, he still could never suppress the twisting ache in his stomach when he saw them. They were his boys, his responsibility. And every time they suffered, he felt it.
The three men, and their three working partners, all stopped what they were doing and turned toward him. Terrell tried to turn as well, looking out of his one good eye, his chest shivering with ragged breaths.
The biggest of the men was a burly monster with a bald head and wild eyes. Towering a full head above the others, he raised an eyebrow in Ethan’s direction. A smile twisted his face.
“Well, look who’s here,” he drawled. “About time you showed up, Demarc. It just ain’t a party without you.”
“I said let him go,” Ethan reiterated, his tone even. “Your fight’s with me, not with him.”
“Oh?” Garn’s eyebrow raised again. “See, as I know it, the reason I got that fight with you at all is because of him.”
Ethan knew what he meant, but disagreed. That was a long time ago.
“He was a kid.”
“And you were a man?”
Ethan tried not to clench his jaw. Garn would see it. “Let. Him. Go. You want me? I’m here. Leave him out of this.”
“You should know,” Garn ignored the order, turning back to the boy on the ground, “that he came to us. I didn’t go after him.”
Terrell glared up at the man with his good eye, jaw tight, the muscles in his neck tensing. Ethan wished he wouldn’t do that. He’d told him, told all the boys, that the only thing Garn loved more than inflicting pain, was inflicting pain on a victim who gave him a good reaction. Their best defense, if it came down to a situation like this, was indifference. The more uninteresting they could make the game, the less entertained Garn and his men would become.
“So you can’t, really, hold me responsible for this,” Garn continued. “I was sitting here, minding my own business, when he decided to pay us a visit. So of course — you know us — we had to be hospitable.”
With that, he delivered a sharp kick to Terrell’s side, drawing out an involuntary gasp and rolling the boy over.
“Well, I wouldn’t expect anything less.” Ethan tried not to look at Terrell. “But if you think you won’t be held responsible for this —”
“It wasn’t our idea,” Garn insisted.
“You did it. Your fault.”
“Since when does that determine whether or not you have to pay for it?”
“Then let him go.”
Garn’s smirk turned sour. He glared at Ethan.
“You think I’ll get hit for what I’ve done so far?” he snapped. “Well then. Let me give you a real reason to get back at me.”
He grabbed Terrell by the arm and dragged him to his feet. Terrell resisted, but barely.
Ethan felt his stomach twist again.
“You’re gonna work your magic and get me to pay just for having a little fun?” the big man sneered. “Well then. Might as well take the hit for something I actually get to enjoy doing.”
He positioned his hands on either side of Terrell’s head, bracing to twist. “You know what I am, Demarc,” the smile returned to his face. “You know what got me here. I ain’t afraid of a little blood on my hands.”
“What if it’s your own blood?”
That was Terrell’s voice, uneven but not afraid.
Ethan was nervous, but partly glad he’d spoken up. They’d have to work together to get him out of this. Neither of them could out-muscle Garn, never mind his five companions, so, as usual, they’d have to outsmart him.
Garn bent closer to Terrell’s bloodied face. “You threatening me, boy? I wouldn’t say you’re exactly in a negotiating position here. One twist, and you’re gone.”
“Who said anything about a threat?” Terrell snorted. “Threats deal with possible dangers. You’re dealing with a very real one, and you know it.”
“And if I kill you? Does that ‘very real’ danger still happen?” Garn asked mockingly.
Just then, something hit the back of Garn’s knee. Startled, Garn loosened his grip on Terrell’s head and turned around. Ethan squinted to see what had happened — and it took all he had to not gasp out loud.
“Well, well, what do we have here?” Garn dropped Terrell altogether.
A strangely amused expression on his face, he reached behind him toward the interruption, dragging it up in front of everyone.
Garn shook his head in mock disappointment as he held up the boy by the arm.
“This is one of yours, I take it,” he directed his condescension toward Ethan, but kept his eye on the newcomer. “You really need to keep your pups on a tighter leash, Demarc.”
Rothan squirmed in the big man’s grip, but it seemed to be more out of discomfort than fear. His little face was a mask of defiance.
“Let him go!”
Ethan’s throat was dry, his mouth almost in danger of hanging open. Those words hadn’t come from him. It was the kid.
The tunnel filled with Garn’s laughter.
“Would you listen to him! He takes after you, Demarc,” he hooted. “Just as stupid. Hah!”
He looked back toward Ethan. “If this was your big plan to distract me –”
“It wasn’t,” Ethan finally found his voice. “I didn’t send him.”
“So, he’s working alone, is he.” Garn eyed the kid. “Innovative. I suppose he’ll get what he wants, then.”
Ethan blinked, glancing at where Terrell stood, held by Garn’s thug companions, paralyzed as he watched the child he’d tried to rescue turn the table and try to rescue him.
Keeping a firm grip on the boy, Garn turned to his men holding Terrell. “Let ‘im go. We got us a trade.”
The two hesitated a moment, then shoved Terrell away from them. He tripped with the momentum, but managed to get his feet under him in time to keep himself from falling.
This wasn’t going exactly according to plan, Ethan thought. Not that he’d had a plan going in — but if he had, this most definitely would not have been it.
Terrell found his way to Ethan’s side, awkwardly. Ethan untwisted the fabric of the shirt wound around the teenager’s wrists.
“Well, boys, it looks like everyone gets what they wanted, eh?” Garn tightened his hold on Rothan arm. “Demarc gets his little boyfriend back, and we get — well, looks like we get his mistake.”
That’s what Rothan was. That’s what this whole situation was. First Terrell, now Rothan were casualties of Ethan mistakes. He should never have let them work so far down, knowing the new kid was one of them. He should have had a contingency plan, if the kid had run away, to protect Terrell from getting caught. And he shouldn’t have just told Rothan to go to safety by himself. He should never, ever have left him alone.
Now, this had happened. This was a what he was stuck with, what he now had to clean up, because of his mistakes.
Glancing at Terrell, at his bruised and bloodied face, he knew they’d be lucky if those were the worst marks they got out with.
“So, what’s your plan?” Ethan said. “Now that you managed to catch a kid who walked right into you. Impressive. Really.”
“I’m not looking for your approval, Demarc,” Garn sorted. “All I want is a prize, and I’ve got it.”
“And a fine prize it is, too. For six grown men, a little kid is something, I bet.”
“We could do a lot worse right now,” Garn replied, sounding slightly annoyed. “You best watch your mouth, or I’ll change my mind about your boyfriend there. And maybe tack you on for good measure. Come on, you don’t really think you can get out of here if I put my mind to keeping you and your little pets here, now, do you?”
“Then why don’t you?”
Garn cocked his head, still firmly holding Rothan. To Ethan’s surprise, the kid didn’t seem the slightest bit afraid. At least, he didn’t show it. To think this was the same kid who hadn’t been able to look at Ethan without terror in his eyes only this morning, was hard to believe.
But Ethan thought he understood. He’d felt the same way, before the boys came into his life. The kid finally understood that they were on his side, and seen what they had risked, and were still risking, to protect him. To fight for him. That must have been enough to give him a reason to fight for them, too.
“Are you mocking me?” Garn rumbled.
“I would never. Just observing.”
That didn’t seem to be the right answer. In fact, this whole conversation didn’t seem to be of Garn’s preference. His face darkened.
At his word, even the three men that had continued working to maintain quota put down their picks and began moving in toward Ethan.
Ethan didn’t budge, and he knew Terrell wouldn’t, either.
“In exchange for what?” he asked, watching the men come closer.
“I didn’t say anything about bargaining,” their leader replied.
“But I did. Let the kid go.”
“I’m shocked those would be your terms,” Garn scoffed.
“I said, let him go.”
That got Garn’s attention. With a raise of his hand, the advancing men stopped. “You don’t say.”
Ethan knew that if anything would do the trick, that would. Garn only wanted one of two things from him: to kill him, or, barring that, to get a good show. He liked his victims squirming, resisting, pleading.
Ethan never gave him the pleasure. Once he’d figured out that a reaction was what kept Garn going, he’d simply withdrawn to the point that swinging a pick at parodesium was more interesting. Unfortunately, his relationship with the boys still kept him squarely in Garn’s crosshairs, but more for their sake than for his own.
By offering to fight, to give that reaction he’d withheld for so long, he hoped it would be enough to entice Garn to discard the kid.
“You’ll fight,” Garn repeated.
“Unlike you, I don’t lie.”
“I don’t lie. You just don’t like what I have to say.”
No one moved. Rothan stood still in the man’s vice of a grip, Ethan and Terrell remained the center of a bull’s eye of approaching attackers, the men waited for their leader’s next whim.
“Deal,” Garn finally conceded.
Ethan exhaled in reserved relief.
“But not here,” Garn qualified. “Tonight, in the barracks. After quota. No guards.”
“And I’ll need one more thing.”
“I don’t take a hit for this. Any of this.”
Ethan thought of what Terrell had already been through. Of what he himself was about to go through later that night.
“Ethan,” Terrell whispered from behind him, warning.
Ethan knew what he was thinking, about what Garn would do with no possibility of consequence. Ethan was thinking the same thing.
“Done. If I get one more thing from you,” he said.
Garn’s eyes narrowed. “This is a bit more bargaining than I hoped for.”
Garn stared at him, weighing the option. It wouldn’t help Ethan much, but it guaranteed at least two things: Garn wouldn’t kill him, and wouldn’t cripple him.
In return, Ethan wouldn’t get revenge through his own methods, the methods that Garn still couldn’t figure out after all these years. All Garn knew was that whenever he attacked the boys, the next day the guards punished him — for missing quota, they said. But the thing was, he hadn’t missed quota. Not actually. Yet the guards seemed convinced he had.
Ethan wasn’t on good enough terms with the guards to merely persuade them to pay attention to Garn whenever he felt like it; there was more to it, and Garn knew it — but he couldn’t figure out what it was.
It was just enough of an advantage to strike a delicate balance between the two factions. Attacks would come, followed by a mysterious hit from the guards, and the two sides would leave each other alone.
“Other than that, I can do anything,” Garn said, “and get off untouched.”
“Let Terrell and the kid go — leave the boys out of it — and yes.”
“All right. Fine.” Garn smiled his twisted sneer, adjusting his grip on Rothan’s arm. “After this.”
And before Ethan could protest, a gut-wrenching snap tore through the tunnel. Rothan let out a cry, and Ethan could only stare at him as Garn released him to fall to the ground, his forearm hanging limply at an unnatural angle.
With a kick to his side, Garn glowered over him, cold eyes on Ethan. “He’s all yours.”
Ethan held his ground, despite how much he wanted to explode. They’d agreed —
No. He forced himself to breathe. The kid was alive, and that was what counted. A broken arm was a big problem, yes, especially considering how indispensable the limb was for mining, but it wasn’t nearly as dangerous as it could have been.
At this point, he just needed to get the two boys out of there.
“Terrell,” he nodded.
The teenager didn’t hesitate. He flew like a shot from a blaster to pick up Rothan from the middle of the the circle of giants, where he himself had been just a few minutes ago. The kid bit his lip and tears escaped his eyes, but he didn’t utter a sound as Terrell carefully lifted him, cradling his arm in his lap.
The men didn’t make a move to stop him, and he was back by Ethan’s side a moment later.
“Tonight,” Ethan said, and with a glance at Terrell, turned to walk away.
“You better be there, Demarc,” Garn called after him. “Otherwise you know who’ll pay.”
Ethan’s spine crawled at the thought of Garn’s thugs attacking the Wall, but he kept walking. Terrell strode wordlessly beside him, carrying Rothan. Neither said anything until they were back at the split.
“So what’s your plan?” Terrell broke the silence.
“You heard it. The deal’s done. That’s all.”
Terrell stared at him in disbelief. “You don’t seriously intend to just walk right into Garn’s territory and fight him, just like that.”
“That’s the idea. Why else would he have agreed to it?”
“Why would you have agreed to it?” Terrell shot back. “You can’t just take him on and lay down and die —”
“The deal was, I get to walk away from there. He’s not gonna kill me, Terrell.”
“You trust him on that?” Terrell bit out through gritted teeth.
“You know what to do if he doesn’t keep his word.”
“I’m coming with you, I hope you know that,” Terrell said flatly, keeping his eyes straight ahead.
“No, you’re not.”
“No. You’re really not.”
“Why not?” Rothan sniffled, between the tears that still fell from the pain of his arm.
They both looked at him.
Ethan voice softened. “Because breaking the deal is too dangerous. And speaking of dangerous, what you did back there — that was very risky.” He paused. “But it was very brave, too. Not many people would have taken on Garn like that.”
“That’s what you’re gonna do,” the kid pointed out.
“But he knows me, and I know what I’m getting into. He had no idea you were there until you ran into him. You didn’t have to put yourself out there like that.”
“He got Terrell because of me,” Rothan shrugged, then immediately regretted the motion, gripping his limp arm tighter.
Terrell seemed to wince for him. “No, I was just dumb to have gotten caught. And now you’re hurt.”
“He was gonna hurt you.” Rothan looked at Terrell’s battered face. “I mean, hurt you more.”
They walked on in silence for a while more, Ethan taking a turn at carrying Rothan.
“I thought you hated us, kid,” Terrell said at last. “I mean, why’d you do it?”
Rothan glanced up at Ethan. “Because you were trying to be friends with me. That’s what friends do.”
It didn’t take long to explain the situation to the boys. But it did take awhile to convince them that they couldn’t do anything about it. Terrell, especially.
On the walk from the mines to the barracks at the end of the day, Ethan tried to explain it to him, for the fifteenth time.
“Garn’s expecting me. Just me,” he said, voice low as a guard walked past. “If he sees anyone else — you, the boys — he’s gonna assume the deal’s broken —”
“And if you go alone,” Terrell hissed under his breath, “it’s gonna be you that’s broken.”
“Maybe. But I’ll live.”
“If he doesn’t decide he’s gonna break the deal.”
“Look, I know you don’t like it. I don’t particularly like it either. But he’s not gonna kill me, and it got him off our backs for the day. That’s what we needed at the time.”
“All it did was trade you for me. And for the kid,” Terrell shot bitterly. Ethan knew he was angry at himself.
“It wasn’t your fault.”
“Yeah. Right. It wasn’t my fault. Like it wasn’t the kid’s fault for running away, and like I wasn’t so damned stupid to let myself walk right into the hands of that —”
“Terrell,” Ethan stopped him. “It’s nobody’s fault. It happens. That’s all. You can’t blame the kid. Or yourself. He had a reason to be terrified; maybe if you talk to him, he’ll tell you about it. And you were just trying to protect him by going after him. It’s okay.”
“And the kicker of it all is, Garn’s gonna get away with it!” Terrell threw his arms up in the air. “No payback, nothing. He gets to toss us around like parodesium chips and then sleep it all off afterwards like nothing happened.”
“It’s the only thing we had to bargain with,” Ethan sighed. This conversation was beginning to make him feel like a hamster in a wheel. “Otherwise, you and Rothan would be in much worse shape right now. And you’re both already pretty bad, considering.”
That made Terrell wince again.
“Yeah, I know. I’m one heck of a role model for the others, to be rescued by a little kid who lost his arm because of me.”
“He’ll heal,” Ethan told him as more boys grouped up to join them as they made their way through the river of people toward the scaffolding and the way out. “Ya know, maybe it’s not a bad thing that it happened — I think he needed to show that he was on our side, was one of us.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I mean — I know he didn’t have to prove anything to us, but he might have had to prove it to himself.”
“By getting his arm snapped.” Terrell sounded doubtful.
“Does he look miserable to you?”
He glanced back to where Rothan shuffled along behind them, subconsciously favoring his arm but engrossed in a conversation with Shalin and some other boys.
“I think he needed a reason to feel like he belonged,” Ethan said. “I know it sounds dumb, but I think it’s for the better.”
“He can’t work,” Terrell pointed out.
Ethan paused. “Yeah, I’ve been thinking about that, too. What if we can get him a spot on the shifter list?”
“The shifter list.”
It was a valid suggestion. Someone had to transport the mined parodesium from the tunnels to the surface for collection. The positions switched around regularly, so it wasn’t impossible to find a way to get Rothan in the rotation. Pushing the shifter carts still required some effort, but for a kid with one arm, it was more manageable than swinging a pick.
“It’s the only job that doesn’t involve a lot of heavy lifting. He could do it,” Ethan shrugged.
“And be in sight of the guards all day — a whole lot more than if he were underground.”
“I know, that’s the catch. But one of us can get on there with him to keep an eye on him. We’ve done it with injured kids before.”
Terrell thought about it. “He’s new. That’s the only problem.”
“You are freakishly optimistic about all this. You realize that, right?”
Ethan just grinned.
The end of the night came far quicker than any of them would have liked. They returned to the barracks, ate the meager slop that passed for dinner, and returned to the Wall. Soon, it was time for Ethan to go.
Terrell insisted on walking at least partway with him. They passed by the empty bunks in silence, neither having much to say. Everything had already been said.
Ethan had to go on alone. Terrell stared at him, but still didn’t say anything.
“I’ll see you later tonight, then, huh?” Ethan tried.
“You sound so sure of that,” Terrell muttered.
“What, you don’t think you can get rid of me this easily, do you?”
Terrell pointed to his own black eye. “You call this easy?”
Ethan clapped him on the shoulder, a faint smile edging onto his face. “Just make sure the others stay out of trouble til I get back. Don’t want you having any fun without me.”
And that was it.
Despite the room’s vast size, he had no trouble finding the meeting place. He’d been there before, but if time had faded his memory any, all he had to do was follow the voices. From the sound of it, Garn had gathered quite an audience for the occasion.
When Ethan got close enough to see what he was already hearing, he realized just how many had come to watch the long-awaited rematch. It must have been at least half the barracks’ worth. All of them waiting to watch him get what was coming to him, if Garn had any say in the matter. Which, unfortunately, he did.
The bunks were welded to the floor, which prevented any special rearranging to accommodate viewing. The fight would start, Ethan knew, in the slightly wider aisle between two rows of bunks — but beyond that, the rest of the barracks was fair game. The two-tier beds formed a geometrically arranged forest of metal legs and mattress canopies, a maze of steel and shadows for him to try to hide in when the fight turned into a chase. Or, more accurately, a hunt.
Most of the spectators had climbed to the top levels of the bunks, anticipating a better view of the contest. But spread out as they were, Ethan knew they too expected a chase to be part of the evening’s entertainment. Which he didn’t mind, but he knew that if it came down to it, they wouldn’t sit idly by as mere viewers. They were there to see Garn win. And they’d chip in, when necessary, to make sure that happened.
If he got a chance to run, he wouldn’t make it very far.
The murmurs and taunts as he walked by began long before he even got close to seeing Garn, giving the man plenty of advance notice that he was on his way. Even still, he feigned surprise when Ethan finally arrived in the aisle.
“Ah, look who’s here,” he crowed, dark eyes gleaming in the low light. “You actually made it.” He glanced around. “Remember this place? Of course you do. Plenty of fond memories here, wouldn’t ya say?”
Ethan just stared coldly, holding his ground and his tongue.
“Ya know, you can speak,” Garn prompted. “You promised to fight. I plan to hold you to it.”
“I’ll keep my end,” Ethan assured him. “Just so long as you keep yours.”
“Yes, yes, I know, I can’t kill you blah blah blah,” Garn waved his meaty hand in the air. “Let’s get on with it.”
They grabbed his arms and pinned them against his back, one of them reaching up and yanking his head back by the hair. This was feeling strangely familiar. Except the last time, he was significantly younger.
His first impulse was to shut down, to withdraw and let them lose interest. But then he remembered the whole reason he was there was to fight back. That would take some getting used to, to reacquaint himself with instincts he’d tried so hard to bury.
“The last time I saw you like this,” Garn rumbled, sauntering up to him, “you were … smaller. It’s been far too long. A lot can change.”
“You seem to be short a pick this time, for one thing,” Ethan offered helpfully.
Garn nodded in regretful agreement. “Yeah, it’s a shame. Things used to be so much more fun around here before they reprogrammed the tools. And before you went cold on us.”
After one long-ago incident between the two of them, the Kelmar officials had decided to upgrade the picks so anytime the tip touched flesh instead of stone, the handle would send a painful shock into the hands of whoever was wielding it.
Of course, there were loopholes that were readily exploited — propping up the pick so no one was actually touching the handle, for example — but the picks would still register that they’d been used for unsanctioned purposes, and their owners promptly dealt with.
“Yeah, a real shame,” Ethan commented.
Garn took another step toward him, distractedly thumping one fist into the other hand. Ethan followed his line of sight, and realized he was staring at his chest.
Ethan could fake just about anything, could lie to cover up his real attitude toward a lot of things. But there were two things about which he’d never really been able to disguise his gut feelings for: his boys, and his scars. He knew the harder he fought to keep a thing away from Garn, the harder Garn would fight to get to it. But for some reason, he couldn’t pretend otherwise.
The scars were his greatest insecurity, which was saying something considering the options he had to choose from in that department. All Garn wanted to do was remind him of it, flaunt it in his face.
Ethan had no intention of letting him get the chance again.
When Garn was practically on top of him, he took a deep breath, hoping the men behind him had a good grip on his arms. If they let go, this wouldn’t have quite the desired effect.
Suddenly, his arms were carrying all his weight. Both his legs swept up from under him, sending a powerful double kick into Garn’s chest. The force was enough to push Garn back and make him lose his footing, crashing to the floor. Meanwhile, the unexpected weight dropped on their hands pulled the two men behind him forward, tipping onto him. It also happened to loosen their grip on him momentarily. Which was all the time he needed.
He leapt to his feet a second before the other three did, using his momentum to dive into the shadows in the narrow space between the bunks. Hoots and calls rose to an almost deafening volume from the spectators — spectators who were all around him. There was no way he’d get very far before they interrupted him, but it was still worth a try.
Garn was spewing something offensive from somewhere behind him in the aisle, the other two echoing his sentiments and rushing to rectify the situation. Those on top of the bunks scrambled around each other, pointing, yelling. Trying to catch a glimpse of the suddenly elusive prey. In the confusion, none of them could.
“Where’d he go?” Garn’s yell was laced with almost as much amusement as anger.
This was part of the game for him. An unexpected part, perhaps, but he still sounded mildly entertained.
Ethan could imagine him and his partners running to recapture him, could hear feet jumping down from the beds to join in the search, could feel the ground rumble with their footsteps.
They would find him. Of course they would. It was just a game of cat and mouse, and he knew it. But he wasn’t about to discount anything that could postpone the inevitable.
They were all around him, yelling, swearing, stomping. He held his breath. And they kept on yelling, swearing, and stomping right on by. They didn’t stop, didn’t notice him.
From his spot under one of beds, he saw them pass. He couldn’t really blame them: even he couldn’t believe he’d been dumb enough to hide under a bed. But when there were rows upon rows of the things, and little else, he hadn’t had many other options.
As the chase continued, he occasionally rolled from one bed to the next, not wanting to sit still for too long. If he could manage to roll his way far enough away from the center aisle —
But no. He couldn’t. His deal with Garn had been to fight, not to run away. This was far too early in the night to assume he could escape and not pay for it later. Garn hadn’t gotten in his fun yet, and until he did, he would never uphold any bit of any bargain.
A pair of boots walking past him stopped. Shifted, as if their owner was thinking. Then the man got down on his hands and knees and bent down, clearly to investigate a hunch.
Ethan glanced over his own shoulder, wondering if he’d have time to roll back under another bunk — but dozens of feet stood in the narrow aisle, blocking his way. Not that it would have done him much good anyway; the problem with such an elementary hiding spot was that once someone got the idea to look under one bunk, he’d be able to see all the way across under all of them.
But it was a moot point. Ethan couldn’t have moved even if he tried. He was boxed in.
Bracing himself, he watched as the man lowered himself to ground level. Just as his face came into view, Ethan struck. Like a springing coil, his hand jabbed two fingers right in the man’s eyes, followed by a thrusting kick to his neck as he reared back from the strike.
Immediately, the man began screaming, one hand pointing to Ethan’s hiding spot, the other covering his poked eyes. His ruckus was loud enough to draw attention, even over the general mayhem everywhere else.
Ethan had expected that. The crowd congregated around his bunk, yelling and fighting to reach under and be the first to get their hands on him. It had to happen, he had to be found; he would have been a fool if he thought he could get away so early.
They grabbed him, pulled him out, dragged him back to the center aisle.
Garn was waiting for him.
Ethan hit the ground face first, the weight of a half dozen men on his back. They splayed out his arms and legs, spread eagle, a different man taking each limb and holding it down. They weren’t taking any chances this time. The others stepped back, and Garn stepped forward.
“So. What was that all about?” he asked, the sound of a smirk in his voice though Ethan couldn’t actually see him. “You didn’t actually think you’d get away, did you? I mean, we just got started.”
He towered over him, then knelt — not beside him, but on top of him. Ethan winced as Garn’s knee settled sharply on his back, pinning him down.
“Though really, I don’t think it was me you’re running from, is it?” Garn said, sounding thoughtful. “It’s something else.”
“Yeah, you got me,” Ethan struggled to breathe under the weight. “There was this really big spider.”
Garn laughed. “No no, you know what I mean. I’ve known you long enough. As I see it, there’s only two things that scare you — I mean, actually scare you: Losing your boys is one of them. And –” he took a fistful of Ethan’s shirt at the nape of his neck “— showing your marks is the other.”
“Wow, Garn, you’re deep. You’d’ve had a promising career as a shrink if you weren’t holed up here.”
He kept his face blank. But though he didn’t want to admit it, the man’s assessment had hit uncomfortably close to home.
The knee in his back dug deeper, making him catch his breath.
“You know what your problem is, Demarc?” Garn asked, almost philosophically, as he leaned harder against Ethan’s body. “Aside from not knowing your place that is. You’re problem is, you ain’t a very good liar. I know how you tick.”
His fist was still clenching Ethan’s shirt. Ethan fought the urge to retch. Whether he liked it or not, Garn was right. The hand unclenched the knot of fabric, readjusting to better grip on the threadbare collar of his shirt.
“You know, you never did tell me what they’re from,” Garn said. Both hands positioned themselves firmly on the fabric against Ethan’s neck, then pulled. He was tearing, wrenching apart the weak fibers of the collar.
Ethan heard the rip. He went cold.
“I’d guess a former master,” Garn suggested conversationally. “But you never did tell me. And don’t say I didn’t ask.”
The rip grew larger, and so did the hoots and laughter of the onlookers.
Ethan gasped for a breath, the knee sharp in his back. “You never said ‘please,'” he rasped.
More laughter. More tearing. Ethan could feel the air on his back as his shirt was torn away. He felt like an animal being dissected, its skin cut away and its insides exposed. Things that should never see the light of day — or even the darkness of the barracks — opened up.
“You and your manners,” Garn snorted. “Maybe you’re right, maybe I didn’t. But don’t expect me to start tonight.”
Terrell must have heard him coming even before he reached the light. It was probably the dragging, shuffling sound he made as he tried to hold himself together long enough to get home. The closest thing they had for a home there.
Ethan was still in the shadows when Terrell and Jonah’s blurry figures materialized in front of him, holding out arms of support, holding back questions. He could see the silhouette of dozens of boys hovering around the Wall ahead of him. They must have all waited up for him. That was foolish, he thought absently; they’d tire themselves out for the next day’s work.
Jonah’s hand touched Ethan’s arm, and Ethan winced. Jonah noticed. “I’m sorry,” he offered quickly.
It wasn’t meant to be answered. One look at Ethan’s bare, battered form was explanation enough.
After the marks, after the mocking had ended, the fighting had begun. Ethan knew how to fight, but with the numbers so drastically against him, it had only been a matter of time before they were landing more blows than he could have blocked or evaded. One strike had gained him a broken nose, another a bloody ear. His bare torso hurt so badly that he wondered what shade of purple his skin would be by morning.
He’d lost count of how many he’d fought, lost count of his injuries, lost track of time. It had become a revolving door of fists and boots, and when they’d finally released him, he couldn’t tell how much of the wetness dripping from him was sweat or blood.
“They thought it’d be a nice touch,” he said hoarsely, “if they broke my arm before I left. Ya know, to match the kid.”
Terrell didn’t try to hide his disgust. “Thoughtful. But they couldn’t just leave it at that, could they. I mean, look at you.”
“I know. I’m almost as handsome as you and your shiner.”
“This isn’t a joke, Ethan.”
“I’m not laughing. My sides hurt enough already.”
Before Terrell could protest again, they had reached the Wall. Instantly, the waiting boys swarmed them, anxious faces and concerned questions everywhere. It took some doing, but eventually Ethan convinced them he was all right, and that they should go to sleep. They had another long day ahead of them, and quota wasn’t going to make itself, now, was it.
Rothan needed an extra talking-to, nearly breaking down after seeing Ethan’s arm broken to copy his. But finally he, too, was off to bed, leaving the area quiet and Terrell free to speak his mind.
“You can’t even lift a pick, never mind make quota,” he said once they were alone.
“Terrell, you really need to work on getting to the point faster,” Ethan told him, leaning back against the wall before his injuries reminded him how uncomfortable that was going to be.
“But you can’t,” he persisted. “So we’ll make your quota for you, and you’re going to rest. You always do it for us, so this time it’s our turn. Okay? End of story.”
“No, not okay. I’m not gonna let you risk your own quota. End of story.”
“You can barely move. You’re telling me you’re gonna swing at a wall all day?”
“No, I’m not. I’m gonna talk to the guards.”
“What? No!” Terrell frowned. “You can’t tell the guards this happened.”
“My mouth is the one part of me that’s still working just fine, Terrell. I can tell them.”
“It’s not like they’re gonna give you a day off. Are you crazy?”
“Probably,” Ethan conceded. “But I’m not expecting a day off.”
“Finally, something we agree on. So what are you expecting?”
“New clothes, for one thing,” Ethan adjusted the blanket they’d draped over his shoulders when he’d arrived. “And a few days on shifter duty.”
“Shifter duty? Ethan, no. We’ll cover for you.”
“No, you won’t.”
“But think about it. For once, will you listen to yourself? Even if they do give you shifter duty, then…” his voice trailed off.
“Then what?” Ethan prompted.
“If you go up to them, even if they see you like this without you saying anything— you know as well as I do that they’ll eat you alive.”
Ethan sighed. As much as he wanted to brush this whole thing off, he knew Terrell wouldn’t let him. And maybe he was right. Garn — the whole night, the threat he always posed every night — wasn’t something he could just try to forget.
“But that’s the thing,” he said quietly. “Yeah, they might eat me alive. But at least I am alive. Garn didn’t kill me, Terrell. I’m here. And I’m not going anywhere.”
He let himself grin a little. “Besides, you didn’t think it’d be this easy to get rid of me, did you?”
RE-READ THE LAST CHAPTER ↔ OR KEEP READING TO THE NEXT!
Kierah felt like a piece of lint that didn’t belong in the pristine auditorium. Despite spending the night in the most comfortable bed she’d ever lain in, she hadn’t been able to sleep, and after Terula’s scrubbing and primping and … Continue reading Chapter 3: The Experiment
I’d love to hear your thoughts — please leave a comment OR shoot me an email!