“Fire! Fire!” The alarm call rang across the camp. Eirick woke up startled. He had only just fallen asleep. He looked up. The master’s house was on fire. What had happened? The dark taskmaster called Nihdar came closer to the earthen hut that housed Eirick and his fellow slaves.
“You, water boy! Do your job and get water for the fire!” Nihdar kicked Eirick out of his bed roll. He spoke the language of Ismark with a heavy accent. Eirick had dark hair unlike most of his fellow Ismarkings, but he shared the blue piercing eyes with his countrymen. His body was covered by a simple woolen shirt and trousers. He got up and ran out of the earthen hut.
The other slaves followed him as he ran to the well. He and five others started lowering buckets into the well. The fire started to lick onto the tents and the roofs of the earthen huts where the slaves lived. Eirick pulled up one bucket and gave it to one of the young slaves, who again gave it to the next young slave. A human link had been formed by many of the slaves all the way up to the building containing Master Cal’s quarters and office. The buckets moved quickly along the human link, but a lot of water leaked out of the buckets. The fire seemed intent to attack those who tried to put it out. The water that reached the building did little to put the fire out. Nihdar hit some of the slaves to get them to work faster.
“Faster!” He screamed at the slaves. Some of the slaves went into the building to extinguish the flames from the inside, but the flames surrounded the entire building by then and parts of the buildings collapsed, trapping the poor souls inside the building. The screams were horrific. Eirick cringed as he heard the men trapped inside. He could tell they were fighting a losing battle. The fire spread among the tents making the pandemonium greater. Men in the human link were running away and different taskmasters were trying to make them return to the line. Some remained and Eirick could see how the flesh almost started to boil in the heat from the fire. Slaves were falling over and Eirick could feel his muscles aching. He looked around for those he knew. He could see Rolph in the line. The big man was sending two and two buckets up the line. He had been Eirick’s closest friend for most of his life. He had never known his parents, only fragments of memories remained, but he had always known Rolph. The two had been captured by the Sorian slave traders in the north of the country. They had been heading for the Gates near Vindborg, the last free area of Ismark. Rolph had tried to get Eirick there and promised him a better life there, but they had never made it. The stories about how life in Eriksdal and Vindborg was were really popular among the slaves from Ismark, but they were careful not to spread them to the taskmasters or some of the Sorian slaves. Sigmund was one who had paid the price of telling the wrong slave about life among the free Ismarkings. He had been tied to four horses, one limb to each horse. Eirick could still hear his screams.
The fire seemed to Eirick to reach the stars as they licked the roof of the earthen huts. Some slave women screamed as they were trapped inside. The task masters stopped any attempt of rescue. The most important thing to them was to stop the spread of the fire. The mines and the buildings of the masters always mattered more. Slaves were cheap in the Empire. Sometimes Eirick could feel a rage build inside him, but he never let it show. He knew the price that some paid for even raising their voices at either the taskmasters or the owners. Flogging was the mildest punishment and even that scared Eirick. He had felt the whip on several occasions and wished only on his masters, never on his comrades.
The building seemed to be beyond saving. Eirick knew the boy who worked for Master Cal and he liked him. He wondered if he had gotten out. He was always nice to the slaves and Eirick had overheard Nidhar calling him a soft weakling for showing mercy. He would never make a proper master, Nidhar had said. The Sorians, even those not of the city of Sor, despised mercy in all its forms. The Empire was built on blood and tears. He never liked that saying. As he saw it, he would never die for his masters. Maybe he saw it that way because he was born free and had become a slave only a few years ago.
Suddenly he felt the whip. It was Barath, an underling of Nidhar. He had all his front teeth missing and he always seemed as though he had some malignant thought on his mind. He did not speak a word of Ismarking, but Eirick knew what the intension was. He had slowed down or he was not fast enough. His back was sore and the lash of the whip did not help. He could feel the blood seep through his rough spun tunic. He increased his speed, but only until he could see Barath disappear in the crowd.
The roof of the office building collapsed. The slaves surrounding the building were caught in the flames that spurned out from the collapse, some with clothes and hairs aflame. Some of the slaves was even caught under rubble at the entrance. Eirick said a silent prayer to Magnar, the Goddess of life and mountains, that their deaths were quick and painless. The task masters now knew the hope was lost for the Master’s building and they started ordering the slaves to contain the fires and keep the flames away from the mines and the mined coal. If the fires reached the mines, the flames would rage for days on end, perhaps even months and years. He had heard of such fires. Further north it was commonplace that the rebels would set the fires to distract the task masters, so that they could free the Ismarking slaves. In this way they could keep their rebel army growing. After being freed, which slave would refuse to fight the former cruel masters?
He often dreamed of fighting with the rebels. That was what he and Rolph had planned, or Rolph to be precise. At the age he was taken he only followed Rolph because he was the only person he could trust and knew, but after a few years of slavery he no longer had any reservations about fighting and even dying for his freedom. If only he could find the right moment to escape and join the rebels.
As the fires spread, the taskmasters lost more and more control over where everybody was. The earthen huts were also burning now, trapping women and the youngest inside. Their tortured screams filled Eirick with dread. He looked away, but the screaming would not stop. He shut his eyes and tears went streaming down his face. These were probably people he knew, maybe even some of the girls he had glanced while they were washing clothes in the river. He opened his eyes again, almost against his better judgment. He then saw a man at the edge of the forest. He was clad in simple clothing, but he was no slave. Perhaps he was a rebel, Eirick thought. He followed him. He was heading for the food supplies. He had to be a rebel. It was probably he who set the fires. Maybe he was there to recruit new warriors. Eirick looked around to see if Rolph was close. He was nowhere to be seen. Cursing himself for not looking for Rolph, he followed the stranger.
As the stranger approached the food storage, Eirick thought he seemed familiar. The stranger produced a key from under his tunic and unlocked the door. He went inside and Eirick could almost see his face in the fires lighten up the camp. Eirick followed a few paces behind him, careful not to make too much noise.
The earthen hut containing the food supplies was lit up by a single torch in the middle of the room. The stranger was filling up a leather bag with food from the shelves. Eirick went up to him slowly. The soft earth on the floor cushioned his footsteps. He grabbed the man by his shoulder. It was not a rebel, but Master Cal. He staggered back as he recognized his owner. Cal brought forth a knife. The metal was glinting in the torchlight.
“Step away, boy.” Master Cal took a step towards the confused Eirick. Eirick shook his head. He did not understand why the master was stealing from himself, but he would not like to let the master go without a fight. He finally had him alone. All the beatings and all the scars on his body, would finally be avenged. He took a step towards Cal. The slave owner stabbed towards the young man, but Eirick had anticipated this and sidestepped grabbing Cal’s arm in the process. The two were now locked in a fight over control over the one weapon in the hut. The slave owner had more technique than the young slave and threw an elbow into the young man’s gut. Eirick lost his breath, but he did not lose grip of the knife. Cal then ran the two into the nearest shelf, which contained the hard liqueur imported from the Black Marshes. One of the bottles hit Eirick on the head and the world started to spin. Cal wrestled the young man free of the knife and sent him flying towards the torch. The torch fell over and lit the liqiud on the floor and on Eirick. Eirick could feel the flames spreading up his body, his right arm and the right side of his face. Cal ran out the door and into the night. Eirick dragged himself out the door, the flames burning into his skin. With his last strength he rolled over in an attempt to kill the fire. He blacked out before he knew if the flames were dead.
Someone was dragging him. Maybe it was Magnar dragging him away from the world. Maybe in this last fight he secured his place in the afterlife. He would see his parents again. This thought made him smile. He tried to open his eyes, but his right eye was burning with pain. In fact the entire right side of his body felt like it was on fire. He screamed in pain. The person dragging him stopped and came back to him. Eirick looked up at him and through his tears he saw his old friend, Rolph. He was not dead. He would not see his parents. He was filled with an empty sadness. The tears stung as they rolled down the right side of his face. Rolph smiled as he looked at him.
“You’re alive. Thank the gods.” Eirick did not want to thank the gods, in fact at the moment he felt like cursing them. He tried to speak, but Rolph shushed him.
“Don’t speak, Eirick. You have been severely burned.” Rolph looked like some ancient hero in the light of the fires. Perhaps even the ancient king Erik. Eirick tried to sit up, but his body burned at the effort. He tried to scream again, but it was as though he had no power left in his voice. He suddenly remembered his ring, the only thing he had left from his parents. He searched his body with his left hand. Rolph came into view again.
“It is here. It is safe.” Rolph gave him the ring and closed his left hand. Two other slaves came up to them. They carried a stretcher. The stretcher was placed beside Eirick and Rolph spoke to him again. “We are going to lift you now, and it will be painful. Steel yourself!“ Eirick could feel his body tense up. The three started to lift him. The pain was as though thousands of needles were stuck in his entire right side at once. This time he managed to scream. They gently put him down again. Rolph and another took a hold of the stretcher and lifted it up. He spoke to the third slave.
“Tell Nora we’re bringing Eirick to her hut. She is the only one who can save him.” The third slave ran back towards the camp. Eirick took one look towards the mining camp. The inferno had spread to half of the camp. Some of the task masters were even involved in fighting the flames. There were bodies everywhere he looked, some of them severely burnt. He thought for a while that he would be one of them and he would have gladly traded his pain for peace. He started to slip away. The pain exhausted him of the last of his energy. The world again went black.
Eirick opened his eyes again. His right eye slid slightly open. The world was foggy. He could smell the incense of the southern Sor which filled the room. His body still hurt. His right hand felt as though it was still on fire and his head felt as though it was ten times heavier than he could remember. His face was cool and he felt someone put a cool balm on his body. His left hand went up to touch his face. An old and wrinkled hand stopped him.
“You should not touch your face. Let the balm rest and do its work.” The kind yet strict voice made Eirick stop. He shifted a little and saw the familiar face of the old Sorian slave Nora. Her gray hair was tied back in a braid and her kind face smiled down at him.
“Rest, boy. You have been badly burnt and you need your rest.” The old slave continued to put the green balm on his arm. It cooled his skin and he felt his pain wax away. He tried to speak, but his throat was so dry that his word became croaks as from a frog. Nora saw this and turned around for a bowl of liquid. She brought it up to Eirick’s mouth.
“Drink this. Slowly.” He drank of the liquid. It had a bitter taste, but he was so thirsty that he did not mind the taste. He laid his head back on the bed. The old slave looked at him. His eyes started to flutter. He suddenly felt really tired. He looked at the old slave.
“I need to speak to Rolph.” He felt the balm being put on his hand before he slowly slipped into the dreamless sleep again.
Eirick opened his eyes again. Rolph sat next to him and smiled nervously as he saw Eirick look up at him. Eirick felt less pain now, so he tried to sit up. Rolph moved to help him up. He felt like the pain return as he got up, but the pain was less intense than before. The cool balm had dried and cracked at his joints as he got up. Nora came in as he got up.
“What are you doing? He needs rest.”
“He is an Ismarking. He can take it.” Rolph smiled at Eirick as he got up. Nora shook her head and walk over to a bucket of water. She filled a cup with water and walked back to Eirick. He looked suspiciously at the cup.
“It is just water,” she said as she gave it to him. He drank slowly from it. His throat first rejected the water and he started coughing. Rolph leaned over and gently slapped his back. Eirick sat the cup down. Rolph looked at him.
Eirick straightened up and looked at his friend.
“Did you try to escape? I have not told the task masters anything. They would probably prefer more of the slaves be punished.” He shook his head.
“No. I thought I saw one of the rebels. I tried to find you, so we could get away.”
Rolph shook his head again. Nora went outside.
“You cannot just run away like that. Remember what you are.”
“I remember.” Eirick shifted in his makeshift bed. He looked at Rolph again.
“It was not a rebel. It was Master Cal.”
“What?” The shock was apparent on Rolph’s face.
“He was stealing food from the storage. His storage.”
“Master Cal died in the fire. In his own house.” Rolph looked into Eirick’s eyes. He felt the back of Eirick’s head. “You must have hit your head.” Eirick jerked his head away.
“I did not dream this. He fought me in the storage hut. We knocked the torch over and somehow it set me on fire. I do not remember what happened to him, but he is not dead.”
Rolph thought about what Eirick had just told him. He chewed his lower lip and looked at Eirick.
“Why would he do this? He is a rich man.” Rolph stood up and walked around. He looked back at Eirick.
“Are you sure?” Eirick just nodded.
Rolph ran out. Eirick felt like the fire was returning to his body. He screamed as though he was burnt again. Nora ran over to him. The world became foggy and then it went to black.