The evening light of the sun cast a bright yellow-orange hue over the fields southeast of the city. There, twelve-year-old Marcus worked as he had almost every single day he could remember. Sweat poured from every pore of his body as he knelt burrowing through the dry, hardened soil. He stabbed the crusted dirt with his small spade repeatedly. The first few times only to pierce a square foot of the top soil, and then subsequent strikes to loosen the softer earth beneath before pulling a round tuber-infested potato from the ground to add to his basket. Axton, the large soldier tasked with maintaining the workload of Marcus’s group of field slaves, walked past giving the young boy a nod to show his approval of his speed. Marcus was glad to receive the endorsement because the only other feedback came from the coiled whip hanging at Axton’s side, and the majority of his fellow field slaves often received the painful disapproval for working too slow.
“That’s it for today,” said Axton stopping in the middle of the row. One by one the slaves began to lug their baskets toward the line of carts parked alongside the rows of crops. A large, round man in a thin tunic sat at a table marking the final tallies on each slave’s collection, ensuring that no one was below their quota. Marcus had dug just under six basketfuls of potatoes, which was no easy task considering the baskets stood nearly his height. The man scribbled something on a sheet of paper and motioned for the next man in line. Marcus had met his requirement. As he trotted home, the echoing screams behind him told some had not been so fortunate.
At his living quarters, Marcus found Inga squatting beside the small fireplace in the corner of their shack.
“How were the fields?” she asked as he entered.
“Just like every other day,” said Marcus. He walked across the single room hut and sat on his bed. His tensed, fatigued muscles relaxed the moment his feet were free of weight.
“Not so fast,” said Inga. She stood slinging a stained cloth over her shoulder. “Outside and wash off in the tub. Supper will be ready soon.” She tucked a long, stray strand of silver hair behind her ear.
Marcus’s body begged for him not to move, but he had discovered arguing with Inga was only a waste of time. He sauntered outside to the small, tin tub. The faint orange of evening lit the horizon as he hunched over and pulled the soaked rag from the bottom of the container. He began wiping the caked dust from his hands, arms, and face. The water was no longer nice and cool like it was when he pumped it from the well earlier that morning. All day in the sun had warmed it to the point it could no longer be considered refreshing.
As he stood rinsing and wringing out the rag, Marcus peered across Pit Street and longed for the life he felt was stolen from him. If only his parents would have lived. Even though he would have most likely been doing the same work, it would have been for a wage, and it would have been across town beside the market, a place the slaves weren’t allowed to travel. Marcus dreamt of seeing the town he called home. He wanted to walk along the green grass of the hillside of the enormous mansions he was forced to look at everyday. Even the lowest class of citizens’ houses had multiple rooms. One for a kitchen, an inside room with a pot so he didn’t have to walk outside every time he needed to piss, separate rooms for sleeping. How great his life would have been on the opposite side of Pit Street.
“It’s on the table,” Inga said as she took down the quilt hanging in the glassless window and placed a lantern on the small table. Marcus gave the rag one last wring and folded it over the side of the tub.
“Beans and rice again,” said Marcus. He hadn’t intended for it to sound so cantankerous, but his voice came out long and drawn out.
“Well, aren’t we just in a good mood,” said Inga. She folded a cloth and placed it over her lap. “You know I can’t help what the Khan gives us.”
Marcus clenched his fist. “It’s not fair.” His voice was low and husky. “Why am I having to eat this every night?” Marcus shoved the bowl away. “I shouldn’t even be over here. I’m not a…” Marcus’s voice trailed off.
“What? A slave?” asked Inga. She spooned out a bite of rice. “I’m a slave. But you’re not, right?”
“That’s not what I meant, Inga,” said Marcus. Guilt washed over him.
“I know what you meant, honey. I know it’s not fair. Ain’t nobody supposed to be a slave.” Inga took another big bite of rice and beans. “Now hurry up and eat so we can get to our story before it gets too late. We gotta ‘nother long day tomorrow.”
The dew dampened the dust just enough that it clung to Marcus’s sandals and feet. The sun had only been in the sky an hour or so, and already Marcus began to feel its warmth wetting his body with sweat. He met Axton and the rest of his group at the Bank of Snake River, so called because of its winding travel around the city.
“Today we’re in the peas and beans. The counter will tell you your quota when you unload your first basket,” said Axton before turning to walk alongside the gardens. The fields stretched nearly as far as Marcus could see. The rows ended into an endless sea of trees that rose into a mountainside. Marcus turned and waved to Inga who was carrying clothes into the river to wash. She waved back, smiling before Marcus turned to trot along with his group into the fields.
The day was the hottest it had been all year. The sun was directly overhead so there was no shade under the vines to hide behind when Marcus crouched to pick the beans. He stood after plucking a vine clean, and a spell of wooziness overtook him. His head spun. His eyes fluttered. Then, he was lying on the ground.
“Get up!” Axton was yelling before Marcus even knew what was happening. Marcus struggled to his knees. “Get some water boy. You’re dehydrated.” Axton slung him a canteen. Axton always seemed to be a little nicer to Marcus. Marcus didn’t know why. The day inched on, but they did get to leave earlier than the previous day. Marcus met his quota even with his bout of dehydration. It seemed like a great day for a swim in the river.
The thought of swimming passed when Marcus walked by The Pit to see the cleric in front of Inga’s door. The group of women who washed laundry with Inga gathered there also.
“What’s going on?” asked Marcus as he sprinted up to the small crowd. The priest nudged the women out of the way with the bottom of his white robe dragging across the dry dirt ground. The once clean fabric around his feet was stained a light brown.
“Come inside with me,” he said and began to lead Marcus into the small hut. Marcus’s heart pounded. Each step he made toward the shack caused the drumming in his ear to quicken. He jerked his shoulder from the resting hand of the priest.
“Tell me what has happened,” said Marcus.
“It was a shadow snake,” the priest answered. Marcus’s racing heart seemed to stop, and the dizziness from earlier returned. “You must come in and speak with her,” said the priest, his face softened, “I’m unsure how much longer she will be coherent. The dreams will take her soon.”
Inside, Inga lay wrapped in thick quilts. She convulsed, shivering as if she was cold, but sweat beaded across her forehead.
“Marcus,” she said smiling. She raised her hand toward him. He immediately cupped it between his as he knelt at her bedside. Water filled his eyes, and his chest tightened as if someone was standing on it.
“Oh Inga,” said Marcus. Tears now wetting his cheeks.
“It’ll be all right,” she said and raised her hand to dry some of his tears.
“No it won’t,” said Marcus. He rubbed his snot-filled nose with the back of his hand. Inga’s only reply was with her eyes, glistening with fear and sadness.
After the cleric left, the crowd outside dispersed as well, leaving Marcus and Inga alone. Marcus pulled a chair beside her bed and fetched her a fresh, cool washcloth and a glass of water.
“Thanks sweetie,” said Inga as Marcus removed the sizzling cloth atop her brow and replaced it with the cool one. She shivered at its touch. Inga’s forehead felt like coals burned just beneath her skin. At least ten slaves were bitten by a shadow snake each year, so Marcus knew he had only a few hours before Inga would involuntarily lose consciousness and sink into a catatonic state. Then, another day at the most, he would be orphaned again.
“Now I’m not gonna spend my last waking hours surrounded by only sorrow, so I’m gonna need you to hide those tears,” said Inga. She struggled to prop herself up against the wall. Marcus jumped to help, but she waved him off and finally made it to a half-sitting, half-lying position. “Will you read the last few chapters to me?” asked Inga. “I’m just dying to know how our story is going to end.” Marcus’s jaw clenched at the statement, and Inga responded with a smirk before a violent cough forced its way out. Marcus retrieved the book from the dining table in the center of the room and started where they left off the night before. Inga remained conscious hours after sunset, and he continued reading by candlelight. It became almost like any other night, Marcus reading and Inga assisting him whenever he came across a new challenging word. She always gave him the pronunciation, definition, and how best to use it. Marcus had never come across a word Inga didn’t know, and even on her deathbed, her consistent intellect did not waver.
Just after midnight, Marcus stumbled over a word and continued to read, waiting for Inga to cut in because he didn’t have the slightest clue as to what extemporaneous meant, and he was fairly certain his pronunciation was less than perfect. But his voice remained the only sound inside the small shack. After finishing the page, he looked up to find Inga’s eyes closed.
“Inga,” said Marcus throwing the book aside and leaping to her bedside. “Inga!” he repeated as he grabbed her by the shoulders and began to gently shake. He continued saying her name and shaking her hoping to wake her from her slumber. With each reverberation of her name, his voice grew louder and the shaking more violent until he could not see through his tear-filled eyes, but his efforts were to no avail. Finally, he slumped to the floor, leaning against the side of Inga’s bed. She was really gone. Not a single slave had ever come back from the dreams. They all spent their last day in a lifeless body until finally their chest would sink to never rise again. Then came the epiphany. All slaves die from shadow snakes, but not everyone is a slave.
A guard Marcus did not know placed the noose about his neck and tightened it so tight Marcus could barely breathe. The rope’s rough material irritated his skin. It was only a few seconds before his neck craved to be scratched, but his bound hands would not allow it.
“You all have been gathered here to witness how we punish your thievery,” said the Kahn. He stood only feet in front of Marcus addressing the left side of Pit Street. He paid no attention to the handful of citizens to the right of the border. The display was not intended for them. “If you steal, you will hang,” he added as he walked to stand beside Marcus. It was the closest he had ever been to the ruler. At arm’s length, he did not seem like the revered god Marcus had been told about or seen from afar less than a season ago when he spoke at the start of planting. As the Kahn walked down the steps of the gallows, Marcus wondered what made him so special. Marcus took one last look at the silent crowd before him. Then, bowed his head and closed his eyes at peace with his fate. Seconds morphed into hours as everyone stood looking on in silence. Marcus kept waiting to hear the pull of the lever and feel the fall, but before it could happen a single voice echoed through the crowd.
“Mighty Kahn let me take the boy’s place,” said the voice. Marcus looked up to see the cleric leading Inga by the arm.
“Why should I allow this?” asked the Kahn when Inga reached the front of the crowd. She approached the ruler and said many things Marcus could not make out. “Set the boy free,” said the Kahn. “No sense in wasting a promising young worker if we have an older one that will send the same message.” Marcus resisted the exchange, but there was nothing he could do. He was carried off one side of the platform as Inga was escorted up the other. The guards threw him to the ground yards in front of the ten-foot platform. Because of his proximity, he could see only Inga’s face. She gave him one last smile before bowing her head as the same guard placed the noose around her neck. Marcus closed his eyes and covered his ears. Tears streamed down his face when he heard the trap door give way. He thought how his actions had been for nothing.
“I hope each of you have learned an important lesson today,” said the Kahn. “Now go to the fields and get to work.” Marcus heard the order, but remained sitting with his eyes squeezed shut. “What are you doing? To the fields.” The Kahn’s voice filled with anger as he continued to bark the order and demand obedience. Marcus heard commotion coming from every side. He finally opened his eyes to find himself encircled by a group of kneeling elderly women who placed hands on his shoulders to console him, and outside that circle–the chaos of revolt.