From the Great Pits, Part 2
Ennerlund, Holberg, Y379
“Form up and forward! Watch your footing.”
Vitória crossed her arms where she stood, straight backed, watching the way Lupo commanded his Wolves. There was safety behind the shields and arms before her, staring thoughtfully at his back while his unit pressed forward, where the tunnels opened into a wide mine shaft.
Pressed between Rodric and Vladimyr, two Vigilance priests from the Tower, she let them think they protected her, flanking each side where she stood part-hidden in the shadows. The wooden struts creaked underneath the troops feet as they made their way down and around the scaffold supports, the darkness below stretching, the scouts pressing forward into the black.
“5 Crowns says the struts are partially sawn through from underneath.”
“What?” The Captain turned, thought a moment, and whistled sharply, his men further down the circular walkway stopping.
“Sawn through the wood underneath. We saw it in the number 2 shaft last week. Wait until you get enough men on it and it might collapse.”
“Taking everyone with it.” Lupo swore colourfully as he ran his hand through his hair. “HALT! New plan. Rodric, grab the ropes. Lucille, you and…” He cast his eyes around. When they fell on Vitória he grinned. “So, Vitória, about that bet, who better to check than a light little Fox like yourself?”
Her jaw dropped, and she struggled to keep her chin up bravely as he approached, unravelling a coil of rope. “Shi–“
Increasingly, it was Ozren who was pulling her from the depths of the mines, insisting that she return to the surface, get a proper meal, and a proper rest. The first time, he had damn near dragged her into the light, and she had been dazzled and blinded by the sun for hours. He had promised, upon seeing the tear streaks down her dirty face, that thereafter he’d only do it in the evenings, but he wouldn’t relent from making sure she was taking care of herself.
She was glad for it, though. When the sun would set and they’d sit around a fire, and talk about such a myriad of tales and stories and topics, it helped to be among strangers whom weren’t judging her, or comparing the person she once had been to the person she was now. Whomever that was, when the mask finally came off her arm, and she could let the mask on her face slip a little more. Inside the mine, it was all business, and there was comfort in it. Outside, with nothing to focus on… it was nice to have a friend.
The stories Ozren told were wonderful, disarming, and more than once she’d wake up after a short doze and find out that she’d missed the end of the tale. He’d smile, and promise to repeat it another evening, and why didn’t she get some more rest? But despite his efforts, she’d never sleep more than a half hour; it wasn’t the same as feeling safe amongst family.
“We’ve had two near misses in this tunnel alone,” the foreman sighed as another shift rotated on. Vitória pressed against the rock face to let the exhausted miners pass by. “I don’t think we’ll be able to continue safely in this direction until we get some fresh heavies in to sweep the passages for traps.”
“That probably won’t be for another week,” the briar sighed, counting on her fingers, “Maybe two. Marius’ troop are finding it slow going in the Northern passages, and Lupo’s wolves have been redeployed to Reikos so we’re–“
“Struggling.” The foreman sighed, rubbed her palms into her eyes and sagged against the wall. Vitória remained silent.
The removal of remains was never a job she was asked to do, and she was grateful for the small relief of not having to take the bodies topside. It wasn’t out of disgust, or an unwillingness to get her hands dirty; she genuinely didn’t know what to do with a corpse, which amused some of the physicks in charge of establishing sanitation in the mines. “Leave it to us, we know what to do.”
She could patch up a living body, set bones, ease pain, and in a pinch she could perform surgery, if there was absolutely no one better suited available. She knew what herbs could be distilled to combat an illness, and her suturing was neat and tailored to leave no scars. But her education was half-learned, out of necessity rather than enjoyment of the subject, and there were glaring holes in her knowledge that made her feel useless in the task of what to do when faced with a long-dead, nameless corpse. It wasn’t exactly in the remit of a cicisbeo.
Hers was a job of comforting the living, assisting the passing of souls to the Labyrinth, and performing funereal rites– and even then, she only really had family experience to go on. Her mind skipped over the most recent funeral –had it really only been 39 days? The wound was still too fresh and yet she knew, to the day— and went back years and years to her grandmother’s funeral. When there had been a cremation and rings and masks, half her ashes scattered to the Vassa, half kept with the family. She had been quite young, but it was the first time she had been allowed to Mestra, officially, since this was a Family Outing to celebrate Grandmama and everyone went, no excuses. It was the first time she had been shown how her family mourns, with laughter and fistfights and tears all mingled together until one couldn’t tell what the emotion you felt was underneath your mask.
She continued to watch over her miners, those on this side that she could protect and comfort. She would offer a prayer over the corpses, when carried past on a stretcher or when she had to pick her way through the bodies. And she tried to ignore the glaring boundary line between life and death that her skills did not cross, where she was of no use and helpless.
“Do you want to talk about it?”
She paused in counting the stockpiles of liao, her fingers counting each small dose in twos and threes.
“About the levels? Well, we’ve made a dent in them, that’s to be sure, but at this rate we should be–“
“No, not the liao.”
She inhaled, held the breath, and released it slowly, struggling to keep a mask on. She turned, her eyes looking into Ozren’s face where he crouched down beside her. In the dim light of the lanterns about them, his eyes were probing, and she looked away despite herself.
“I don’t know what you–“
“Yes. You DO.” His hand reached out to pull her fingers away from the Liao chest, before she could start counting again. “You know, there are enough priests here that we could check–
“No.” She pulled her hand away. “Don’t waste liao when we have need of it for more important things.” The vehemence in her voice surprised him, surprised her too were she to admit to it. She forced a smile, and pushed the tally sheet back into his hands. “Niccolo would have a fit to waste the liao. We shall either find out when it matters, or in Anvil. The Synod will have to be informed by then, anyways.”
“Are you afraid of what might be seen?”
“If I didn’t know you, Ozren, one might think you were challenging my Courage.” A quirk of a smile crossed her face as she tried to pass it off as nothing, but there was a tremble in her voice that spoke of how close her mask was to slipping off.
“Vitória, are you afraid–“
“WOULDN’T YOU BE?” For the first time since, her hands trembled, her eyes blazed with emotion, and she let the Spring energy run unchecked. “Wouldn’t you be afraid if all you were Proud of, was suddenly…” She choked at the thought, unable to speak.
“Yes. Yes, I probably would.” The passion dissolved away, leaving her suddenly exhausted, and she slumped. Only barely registered the hand on her shoulder. “Doesn’t mean anything has to change if you don’t want it to. Doesn’t make you any less Virtuous.”
“Hand on heart? I don’t believe you.”