Rocks, more rocks.
The air smells foul. It's putrefied with the scent of sweat and flesh, festering in the sun. People around me are dropping every day now and thrown to the side of the road. Heat stroke. It sweeps over the encampment like a plague, striking them down like flies. No one bothers to bury them, not out here in the desert. I drag rock after rock from the tunnel, throat burning and muscles aching. I know any day now I'll be among that pile of bodies. But what choice do I have?
The chains on my wrist are heavier everyday, bruising my skin until it's purple. Rations are growing scarcer, but still I pull those wretched rocks, desperate for the day the pile will crumple loose. Even the most spirited are breaking now. Some even skim rations, knowing that the next day they'll die of starvation and this whole wretched business will be over for them. I'm almost tempted to join them. Today, one of the few left, Althos, looks over at me. “Aren't you tired, Rowan?” he says, coughing. His hands come away in blood.
“Tired is an understatement,” I reply, heaving another rock forward. Althos gives me a mirthless, toothless smile.
“Me too,” he says, and drops dead. I flinch as he's dragged away.
I think of times before this, and how I have gotten to this awful place.
It all started when he found the gem.
A miner had seen it, underneath a large hunk of sandstone, just sitting there, the largest and most beautiful he'd every seen, shining brighter than a thousand diamonds, he'd said. The town had all gathered and awe to gape at it, pay coppers just to touch it, it was the size of someone's fist. Even I got a peak at it.
Soon word had spread away from our village and all the way to the capital that the stone had been found, and eventually it even reached the King. He ordered the mine excavated immediately.
But then there was an accident.
As the miners worked tirelessly, they found a weak joint in the rocks. But they didn't stop. And one day, hundreds of tons of rock had tumbled on top of them, closing the entrance. But not before one had cried out, “They—they're are millions!”
And then they were buried.
The king ordered us, the village whom he said were responsible for the incident, to move aside the entrance. We all knew he was too greedy to pay workers for it, though. Punishment is free.
So everyone man in the village older than fifteen and younger than eighty was put to work.
The first day was the easiest.
The first day they provided food and water, but we were out in the desert, miles away from valuable sources, and soon, those luxuries were abandoned for soldier use only. They gave us enough to barely keep us alive, but it was the heat and dehydration that got to most of us. Even in thin tunics, the sun was unforgiving. Even the sand and rock was hot enough to give us blisters. The frail ones died quickly—the old men, mostly, but a couple weak youth were picked off as well. At night we all lay underneath tents of animal hide—most of them have holes now—sweating and shaking and aching violently, but consumed with exhaustion. When we fell asleep, it was with burning throats and stale muscles and hopelessness.
The bodies piled up quicker, some dropping on sight, some in their sleep, and others that just disappeared in the night, running off to starve themselves elsewhere or get picked apart by vultures.
So now I haul boulder after boulder, help getting scarcer, until it's just me and nine other of the strongest men. Day after day, night after night.
I think some of us are going mad.
Today when I wake, it's to hear that Achard has disappeared.
Two weeks later and the pile has thinned dramatically, but so have our own numbers. Now it's just me and three others. We all look like wraiths, skeletons of what we used to be, but we keep going, hopeful that any day now the pile will collapse.
Today I pull rocks as usual, thoughts far away. Thoughts of my family, wondering if they know I'm one of the two left, wondering if I'm going home at all. I'm covered in bruises and blisters and my ribs poke through my tunic. We're a nasty sight, the two of us, sicklier than ever.
Just faint at first, but then I pull away another and it grows until it shakes the ground.
It's working, they're falling.
We run back as it happens, it finally happens, the pile tumbles, making way for what's beyond. We stand back, laughing as it crumbles, wiping away sweat and tears and blood from opened and re-opened blisters.
But when the dust settles, there's nothing there but rocks, more rocks, and bones.